The Kennedy Assassination and the Dawn of the Information Age

This past Saturday marked 51 years since the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. On 22 November 1963, Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. In the age of television, the immediacy of the shocking news and rapidity of its spread meant that it was not Americans alone who can remember where they were when they heard Kennedy was dead. The President made an equally strong impression outside of the United States as he did at home. Today we discuss Kennedy’s charismatic reputation and how new media shaped his presidency, his death, and our memory of him today.

John Kennedy was a typical modern politician, the sort we recognize easily today. He was charming, handsome, and compelling to an audience. In the post-war era, his rise to prominence was timed with the dawn of the television age as for the first time, the transmission of visual information could be delivered to a wide audience. Politicians were presented visually to American voters. Its effect was made clear during Kennedy’s famous Presidential debate with Richard Nixon.

Kennedy looked calm, collected, and friendly. Nixon looked nervous, sweaty and unprepared. Radio listeners chose Nixon as the victor in the debate as his ideas were better, but voters watching on television believed Kennedy out performed his Republican opponent. The 1960 election was closely contested, but Kennedy’s victory revealed how television could affect a campaign.

Canadians felt ‘the Kennedy magic” as much as our neighbours south of the border. In 1957, Kennedy made a trip to the University of Toronto to take part in a debate on whether the United States was an effective leader of the West. He won the debate by a two-to-one margin and a presidential fever gripped many young Canadian students there who left in awe of Kennedy’s confident and intelligent demeanour. Word spread and Kennedy’s Canadian popularity increased. When Kennedy made his first trip outside of the United States after being named President in May 1961, he travelled to Ottawa, where more than fifty thousand people cheered and celebrated his arrival. To put that in perspective, the crowd that showed up to greet Kennedy on his first arrival in Ottawa was more people than had shown up for the arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip on a visit that same year. The local press claimed emphatically that Kennedy was a smash hit.

John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of Canada during the first years of Kennedy’s administration. Diefenbaker had publicly backed Richard Nixon in the presidential election, and when Kennedy won he quickly developed a deep dislike for the newly elected president based on Kennedy’s “activist” and “rash” approach to public affairs. On a personal level, Diefenbaker worried about Kennedy’s popularity in Canada and its impact on his own public image. The Canadian prime minister had no use for the glamorous life-style of Jack and the other Kennedys. He found Kennedy’s zesty political stature irritating, threatening and politically dangerous in a tense world. Diefenbaker was by no means alone in this regard. Kennedy made many Canadians nervous at a time of heightened Cold War fears when the dangers of nuclear war seemed ominous and quite potential. On the other hand, the youthful, confident and strong leadership of Kennedy was a stark contrast to stodgy party of John Diefenbaker. The American President was a modern politician who easily captured the attention of a world shaped by communication media.

The importance of new media also greatly shaped the reaction to his death. His assassination was not only a national event but a global one as well. Kennedy was shot in Dallas at 12:30pm. News of the shooting quickly spread through the press to newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. At the United Press International news desk in Chicago, Larry Lorenz described where he was when he heard Kennedy had been shot. It was a typical day as Teletype machines printed out the normal stories coming over newswire, when suddenly at 12:34pm, Lorenz heard five bells indicating an “urgent” story was coming. Stories given an “urgent” label could supersede others being transmitted – or a “Flash” story that had ten bells sound, but it was so unlikely that wasn’t even included in the manual for the machines. The urgent story read: “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas.” It was likely the wire transmission was sent from Merriam Smith, who delivered it from his radio-equipped car minutes after the shooting.  Radio broadcasts were interupted with the news:

Five minutes later at 12:39pm, Lorenz heard ten bells. The message from Dallas read: “Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps seriously perhaps fatally by assassins bullet.”

The staff at United Press sent the story out to the wire and it was delivered across the country. Television networks interrupted their coverage to deliver the news. Radio stations read the messages coming off the newswire to their listeners. Within half an hour, the nation knew Kennedy had been shot and was in serious condition. By 3:00pm, the death of the president was announced. Lorenz reflected on that moment:

I hadn't thought about the people we reached with our reports. And I couldn't venture a guess, even, as to how many other radio stations operated as the Anna station did, or how many people got their first news of that terrible event from us. But it occurred to me that afternoon that millions of Americans, driving or shopping, working in offices or doing chores around the house, heard those words we wrote that afternoon as they were delivered in all the accents of small-town American radio, from the clipped sentences of Maine and Vermont, to the the drawls of Alabama and Mississippi: "President Kennedy is dead. He was shot to death by an assassin in the streets of Dallas.

The 22 of November was historical day for another reason – it marked the first time a television signal was relayed via satellite across the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Japan. The Relay Program had begun launching communications satellites into orbit the previous year. Relay 1 was ready to send a pre-recorded address from President Kennedy to the Japanese people the morning of 23 November and many gathered in front of their television sets to watch the historic broadcast. It was scheduled to transmit at 1:27pm EST on 22 November 1963 to match morning in Japan’s time zone. However, instead of Kennedy’s message, thousands of Japanese viewers were shocked by the news that the President had been shot. The Japanese gradually learned more about the American President’s condition alongside millions of Americans.  To this day, Japan continues to feel a connection to the Kennedy family as a testament to their powerful collective experience.

The speed at which news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination spread from Dallas and its repetition in the days and weeks afterward helped create a collectively “remembered moment” among Americans and the world. Many remembered “where they were” when they heard the news that day, and likely watched Walter Cronkite or other television news reporters follow the story as news slowly filtered from Dallas. There was a collective experience not only in learning about Kennedy’s death, but also in following the news over the day as more details emerged. Around the world, viewers followed along with the television news broadcaster who learned more about what happened in real-time with their audiences.

The enormity of the event, both at the time and in its historical consequences, has often since been the focus of academic historians, popular writers, and – of course – conspiracy theorists. It’s also a topic that has been approached by scholars in ways in the digital age.  New media is now shaping how Kennedy is remembered and treated by historians!

Two projects in particular stand out. Virtual JFK is a counter-factual history of what might have happened had the President lived. A project headed by James G. Blight (who was an advisor on the film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara) and Janet M. Lang. The pair have used film and animation to expose audiences to the history of JFK, offering other insight with their Armageddon Letters project about the Cuban Missile Crisis. They have worked hard to present their research on a digital platform (or at least, non-textual).

Another project more directly related to the assassination comes from Professor Frank McDonough. Last year, he sent out a series of tweets detailing a sort of “live-tweet” of Kennedy’s final hours. It’s been collected via Storify as an easily navigable series of tweets that allows you to follow the event via Twitter. It’s collected many interesting pictures and videos from the day, and we think it is a fascinating example of communicating history online. Even through the often-maligned 140 characters of Twitter, there are great possibilities for how historians can communicate the past. As future generations’ memory of the Kennedy assassination evolves, how many will look to YouTube and Twitter to remember the past?

The history and memory of the Kennedy Assassination reveals a fascinating array of old and contemporary media. Commentators have drawn parallels to the spread of information about Kennedy’s death via teletype, with its brief short messages, to Twitter’s 140 character limit, but McDonough’s use of Twitter shows how shallow such a comparison can be.  It is a far more flexible and communicative platform than the newswire of old. Decades after he died, Kennedy remains enmeshed in the modern age.  His death and its enduring presence in our collective memory is a testament to the power of the information age and how small distances become when information travels instantaneously.