By Chuck Ross
Images of what transpired live, on TV, in the hours and days after President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed almost 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, seem to be indelibly etched in our collective memories.
One of those moments was watching Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses as he announced, live, on CBS, that JFK was dead.
Equally indelible is the image so many of us have (and our late parents or grandparents told us they had) of watching — again, live, as it happened — Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963.
Here’s why millions of us who were watching CBS’s coverage that day actually did NOT see it live, according to Dan Rather, who was reporting from Dallas at the time:
My job on that Sunday morning … I had become, over the days of the assassination, the sub-anchor, if you will [of our CBS News assassination coverage]. Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner and other people in New York were handling the main anchor duties at CBS News world headquarters in New York.
We had set up shop, if you will, at our local station at KRLD. … The plan was for New York to throw the coverage to me in Dallas. … I would narrate the [live feed of the] transfer of the prisoner [Oswald] from the police headquarters to the city jail. I was at the local station prepared to do the narration of the whole transfer. That’s where I was.
I had great difficulty getting my head around the fact that this person [Ruby] had appeared out of nowhere in the basement of the police station and assassinated the man alleged to be the assassin [of the president]. It was almost incredible, and [my] first thought was, ‘Did I see what I thought I saw?’ And of course in the next nanosecond, ‘Of course you did.’ And I was screaming for New York to come to us. They had not come to us live. They were in the midst of reading an essay and memorial to President Kennedy. But they came quickly, and we turned around the videotape and, of course, the country saw what had happened.”
Later Rather said that NBC carried Ruby’s shooting of Oswald live, “but [not] CBS, as I explained, because Harry Reasoner had an essay about President Kennedy that he insisted upon reading, and the powers that be in Washington [at CBS News] said ‘Okay.’ We’d covered a church service in Washington, at the National Cathedral, I think, about President Kennedy, and the plan was to go from the church service to come to Dallas for the transfer of the prisoner. Reasoner had this essay he had written — he was a good writer and he was proud of his writing and he wanted to read this essay. So while the assassination of Oswald was happening, we were in the middle of a Harry Reasoner essay in New York. As I say, I was screaming for them to come to us. They eventually did. … So the assassination [of Oswald] was seen live on some television, but that particular event was not seen live on CBS News.”
Rather made all these remarks earlier today, Nov. 14, 2013, in a telephone press conference held to promote his AXS TV special “My Days in Dallas: A Remembrance with Dan Rather,” which will air Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, at 8 p.m. ET and 5 p.m. PT.
On Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, TVWeek will post more of Rather’s remarks from the press conference.