Fifty years after he broke the news that President John F. Kennedy had been killed, Dan Rather joined The Kalb Report at the National Press Club to talk about his experiences as a journalist covering the president’s assassination from Dallas. The former anchor of the CBS Evening News sat down with Marvin Kalb to give his firsthand account of the events surrounding Kennedy’s death.
On Nov. 22, 1963, CBS assigned the Texas native to coordinate media coverage for a “routine political visit”. Rather was stationed at the underpass where the president’s motorcade was scheduled to culminate when he saw what he believed to be Kennedy’s limousine speed by him.
It was not until Rather rushed to the local CBS station to complete a film drop that he heard Kennedy had been shot. The wires at the station began to run as the news broke.
“Every reporter’s emotions just kicked in,” he said.
Knowing the phone lines would soon be busy, Rather placed three calls to the hospital where Kennedy had been taken. Although a nurse hung up on him the first time he called, Rather eventually was able to speak to a doctor and a priest, who both confirmed the president indeed had been shot and was dead.
The word of doctors and a priest was enough evidence for Rather.
“When you’ve got a dead man, you’ve got a dead man,” Rather said.
Although television broadcasts would wait until the official White House announcement to break the news to the American people, CBS immediately played the Star Spangled Banner and announced that Kennedy had been assassinated.
During the four-day ordeal, Rather relied on his journalism fundamentals to report the facts to the American people. This allowed him to calmly break the tragic news during one of the most emotional experiences of his life.
“When a sledgehammer hits your heart, your instincts kick in,” he said. “You’re a reporter…and you’ve got a dead man.”
Rather attributes his news instincts to helping him avoid a potential disaster as he covered Kennedy’s death. When Kalb mentioned that he would have been terrified to break such immense news without official confirmation, Rather reminded him that when things are in chaos, simply reporting was more important than anything else.
“If you had been there, you or any reporter, your instincts would have kicked in,” he said.
Kalb and Rather discussed the role of journalism in the Kennedy coverage. Both pointed out that the assassination was the beginning of the, “TV age as we knew it.” Comparing earlier work to modern journalism, Rather said past journalism had been less bias and more honest.
“[The coverage of Kennedy’s death] was the spine of American journalism,” he said. “Most journalists were honest brokers of information.”
Rather related the Kennedy assassination news reporting to the coverage of 9/11. He called the two national tragedies, “bookends of the television news era.” According to him, TV news came of age during the four day programming following the Kennedy assassination and lost headway in the digital era following 9/11.
Rather is for the most part quick to dismiss potential conspiracies surrounding Kennedy’s death. He believes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and Jack Ruby was the person who killed Oswald.
“An assassin assassinated in the police station, you can’t make this stuff up!” Rather said.
He emphasized the necessity to analyze the Kennedy assassination with facts and not emotion.
“We’re entitled to our own opinions,” he said. “But we’re not entitled to our own facts.”
Many members of the GW community attended Friday’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) sponsored event.
Steve Mukherjee, who earned an engineering management degree from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) in 1979, said he was thrilled to see Rather that evening. Although Mukherjee was in a small Indian town when he heard that Kennedy had been shot, he still values the veteran journalist’s work surrounding the assassination.
Rather is, “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” he said.
Other attendees included Provost Steven Lerman and SMPA Director Frank Sesno. Lerman, who was in his seventh grade gym class when he heard that Kennedy was dead, said that the opportunity to attend the Kalb Report was an educational and exciting opportunity for GW students. As a broadcast journalism veteran, Sesno emphasized the importance of television reporting during the coverage surrounding the assassination.
Several GW students had the opportunity to ask Kalb and Rather questions following the program. Junior Omeed Firouzi asked Rather how President Lyndon Johnson was affected by the Kennedy assassination. After the event, Firouzi said he was excited to hear Rather’s “unique vantage” of the events surrounding Kennedy’s death.
“Rather lived through the events,” Firouzi said. “He is a primary source.”
However, the man of the hour did not try to venture into the unknown. On Kennedy’s legacy and the what-ifs surrounding his administration cut short, Rather does not speculate on the “would have beens.”
“We’ll never know,” he said. “It ended too soon to judge.”
The accomplished journalist still considers the story the biggest of his career. When he was asked which network had the best coverage of the assassination and following events, Rather replied with a sheepish grin.
“CBS,” he said. As if he had any other option.