November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. To a lesser degree, it is also remembered as (perhaps) the finest hour in the history of broadcast television, a moment when the medium reached its full potential, informing and–to some degree–unifying a nation in one of its darkest hours.
Much has been written about that fateful day in Dallas and the men and women who tried to cover the death of a President. Some, such as Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite, were already icons; for others, like Dan Rather, the JFK assassination became a career-changing moment. As one of the CBS correspondents on the scene, Rather played a pivotal role in the non-stop coverage that unfolded over the next four days. Within a few months, he was promoted to the White House beat, followed by other high-profile assignments in London, on “60 Minutes,” and eventually, appointment as Cronkite’s successor.
The long weekend also cemented the reputation of Frank McGee as one of NBC’s most talented anchors. McGee had been recruited a few years earlier from an unlikely location–the network’s affilate in Montgomery, Alabama.
Normally, network news executives preferred to hire new reporters from larger markets, or one of their owned-and-operated stations. But Montgomery was at the center of the civil rights story, and a number of NBC correspondents and producers had worked with McGee, who was news director and anchor at WSFA-TV. Impressed with his work, NBC offered him a job in New York, and he quickly became a mainstay on breaking news and political coverage.
When wire service teletypes began chattering with the first bulletins from Dallas, the network news divisions sprang into action. But in those days before cell phones, the internet, and lightweight cameras, getting on the air took a bit of effort. Walter Cronkite read CBS’s first report off camera, while technicians moved cameras and lights into the newsroom.
NBC was equally unprepared for breaking news in the middle of the day. The network didn’t have live programming during the 1 o’clock hour (eastern time), giving local stations a chance to air their own programs and providing a lunch break for much of the technical staff. The network’s flagship station, WNBC-TV, was airing a re-run of the John Forsythe sitcom “Bachelor Father” when a news editor ran to the announcer’s booth, where Don Pardon was on-duty for the local station and the network. He informed Pardo that President Kennedy had been shot; the network was interrupting programming and the NBC staff announcer would read a bulletin ripped from the news wires. At 1:45 pm, Pardo delivered the following update:
‘PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UP AND GRABBED MR. KENNEDY. SHE CRIED ‘OH NO!’ THE MOTORCADE SPED ON.
Pardo would deliver one more bulletin while NBC assembled its news talent in a small, paneled studio. Chet Huntley, one-half of the “Huntley-Brinkley” report was joined by Frank McGee and a third journalist, Bill Ryan. In 1963, Mr. Ryan was best-known as co-anchor of the “Ryan-Pressman Report,” New York City’s first 30-minute local newscast that aired on WNBC. He also anchored afternoon newscasts for NBC Radio; in fact, he was preparing the network’s 2 pm radio news update when a staffer informed him of the assassination attempt and told him to join Huntley and McGee in the breaking news TV studio. The anchor trio began reporting the story at 1:53 pm, providing audio coverage over a bumper slide until NBC’s cameras were ready, and began transmitting video four minutes later.
Over the next four days, Huntley, McGee and Ryan led much of NBC’s coverage. But their work in the first few hours following the assassination set the tone for what followed. Despite enormous pressure and limited technology, they offered clear, concise coverage of the day’s terrible events. Watching video of their work, viewers will note the lack of speculation and conjecture that so often clouds today’s coverage of breaking news. The NBC anchors stuck to the facts, as did their colleagues at CBS and ABC.
While a number of journalists excelled on that tragic day, few performed better than Bill Ryan. Working with little more than wire service copy and phone reports from reporters in Dallas and Washington, Mr. Ryan was unflappable, delivering the grim news with an authority and context that was sometimes missing amid the chaos and horror of the moment. Interviewed years later about his long broadcasting career (and role in NBC’s coverage of the JFK assassination), Don Pardo recalled “a local guy (Ryan)…who was very impressive.” Fortunately, the networks recorded their coverage of that terrible day, and it can be viewed on YouTube, among other sites.
Indeed, Mr. Ryan and Frank McGee handled much of the anchor duties for NBC; Chet Huntley, the face of the network’s news division, seemed a bit flustered on that fateful afternoon, and left the anchor desk before NBC concluded the day’s coverage. He was in better form over the next three days, as NBC tried to gain ground against rival CBS.
At the time, NBC still led the evening news race, but CBS was widely praised for its coverage on the afternoon of JFK’s assassination. Not only was Walter Cronkite on the air ahead of his rivals, CBS also benefitted from having more resources on the ground; they had multiple reporters covering the presidential visit to Texas and the network’s Dallas affiliate (KRLD-TV) was handling the pool feed for the event.
For whatever reason, NBC elected not to take the feed, while ABC and CBS had access to that coverage. In fact, it was KRLD news director Eddie Barker who first reported that “something terrible” had happened as Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealy Plaza. His comments were heard by Dan Rather, who immediately relayed that information to New York. By comparison, NBC had only one reporter on the scene–White House correspondent Robert MacNeil–who was working without a camera crew. Adding insult to injury, when Mr. MacNeil was able to contact the network newsroom in New York, an editor put his call on hold.
Despite those glitches, Bill Ryan did yeoman work for NBC on that afternoon in November, and over the days that followed. But oddly enough, he never reached the pinnacle of TV news. After 26 years at NBC, he moved into semi-retirement, working as a newsman at smaller stations along the east coast. On the 25th anniversary of the assassination, columnist Bob Greene found Mr. Ryan at West Virginia Public Television, serving as a senior reporter/producer, and hosting a weekly public affairs program.
In one of his few interviews on the assassination, Ryan remembered thinking that he “absolutely could not say the President was dead until he was 100% sure.” He also recalled a lack of “human or emotional reactions” during that first afternoon. Instead, the NBC reporter was more focused on trying to provide coherent coverage from little more than AP and UPI wire copy, ripped from the teletype and handed to him. “Did I say this before? Do I give this information again?”
Mr. Ryan passed away in 1997, at the age of 72. Sadly, even the journalism world has largely forgotten his sterling, on-air performance under the most trying circumstances. But there are lessons to be learned from his steady, professional reporting–lessons largely lost in today’s scramble to cover breaking news.
Watch almost any major story that unfolds quickly and you’ll see rampant conjecture, almost non-existent sourcing and mistakes aplenty. Not too many months ago, many reporters were speculating (some would say hoping) that the individuals responsible for the Boston Marthon bombing were right-wing extremists. We all know how that turned out.
That’s not to say that errors weren’t made on November 22, 1963. But on the day when some say television came of age, there was remarkable work by many of the anchors who delivered the devastating news. One of those individuals was Bill Ryan. And he deserves praise for a job exceptionally well done, even if it comes 50 years late.
ADDENDUM: One of Mr. Ryan’s daughters, Kate, followed him into journalism and works as a reporter for WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. She offered some thoughts on her father’s work in a recent post on the station’s website.