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By Rich Heldenfels
Akron Beacon Journal
The shining moments. Oswald. The conspiracy theories. Cronkite. Ruby. Jackie. The other Kennedys. The other women. Once again, in the days ahead, television will offer reminders to older viewers and history lessons to the young.
Friday brings the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, not only a pivotal moment in U.S. history but a watershed for TV. Granted, when news of the assassination first broke, people turned to radios in their schools and workplaces to get the latest news. But overall, and even though TV had carried historic events before, the Kennedy assassination was key to what journalist Tom Wicker called “the mushroom development” of the medium.
Covering Kennedy’s funeral alone was TV networks’ “greatest challenge since the coming of television,” historian Edward Bliss Jr. later wrote. An estimated 93 percent of U.S. homes with television reportedly tuned to at least some of the coverage.
After the assassination, TV became “something like the national nervous system,” Wicker wrote at the 40th anniversary of the assassination, the way that “people everywhere realize something shocking has happened.” Of course, Wicker — who died in 2011 — was writing 10 years ago, and TV has lost much of its pre-eminence in immediacy to online news operations and social media.
But in the days ahead, TV will try to reclaim some of its place at the communal table, presenting and pondering the impact of John F. Kennedy through an array of documentaries, interviews, reminiscences and dramatizations.
In addition to specials, regular news programs will weigh in. For example, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather will be on NBC’s Today on Friday to talk about the assassination. Yes, Rather, a key player in CBS’s coverage of Kennedy’s death, will be on his old rival network. CBS chose not to include Rather in its coverage, since the anchor had a bad falling-out with CBS and later unsuccessfully sued it. He is expected to be seen on CBS in archival material.
CBS’s “Face the Nation” — whose host, Bob Schieffer, was in Fort Worth as a reporter on Nov. 22, 1963, but took a call at the newspaper office there from Oswald’s mother, who asked to be driven to Dallas to see her son; Schieffer and a colleague drove her to the police station there — will be in Dallas today. The “CBS Evening News” will also be done live from that city on Friday. Also on Friday, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” plans a tribute to and discussion about Kennedy. PBS’s “Nova” on Wednesday will revisit the assassination with new forensic techniques, while the network’s “Frontline” series replays its 1993 program, “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?”
Then there are specials. After 50 years of Kennedyana, some shows will range well beyond the president himself; one PBS special looks at the journalists covering the assassination, particularly CBS’s Walter Cronkite, whose tearful announcement of JFK’s death became one of the most remembered moments from those grim November days. A TLC special turns its attention to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination with readings of letters people sent to the former first lady. The assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is central to several programs, including the TV movie “Killing Kennedy,” based on a Bill O’Reilly book. The History channel examines, once again, the various conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s death.
There is the hagiography of “PT 109,” which Turner Classic Movies will replay, and more clear-eyed acknowledgments of Kennedy’s infidelities, physical problems and drug use in productions like “Killing Kennedy” and PBS’s “American Experience: JFK.” For those who well remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, there may be a sense of weary repetition as the shows roll by. But for a growing number of others, this is not a reminiscence as much as an attempt to understand the distant past. Consider George Clooney, host of one Kennedy program, his hair laced with gray. He was 2 years old when Kennedy was shot.
What to watch:
— “Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.” 10 p.m. Nov. 22, History. Minute-by-minute account of Oswald’s final days.