RTDNA's Kennedy connections

November 26, 2013 01:30

With all of the coverage surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy over the past week, we were reminded that RTDNA has many connections to Kennedy and the story of his life. Of course, some broadcast journalists had introduced the country to the Massachusetts Navy man in the 1940s, with the story of his heroism in the South Pacific in World War II. Hundreds of radio and television members of the Association covered Kennedy in one way or another as a Congressman, Senator and as a presidential candidate in their local markets from the late 40s through 1960. And some served as network correspondents who reported on his campaign and on his presidency. Dan Rather, a 1997 winner of RTDNA's Paul White Award, was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and was among the first to confirm the death of the president before an official announcement was made.

Fewer people around the country may know former RTDNA President (the title later changed to chairman) Eddie Barker, News Director at KRLD-TV (now KDFW-TV) in Dallas, is credited as the first broadcast reporter to confirm Kennedy's death. He got the tip from a doctor friend who was at the luncheon where Kennedy was scheduled to speak. The doctor had called the emergency room to see if he would be needed, and was told that the president had died on arrival, which he then told Barker. CBS in New York was monitoring KRLD's reports, which became part of Walter Cronkite's narrative as they awaited official confirmation.

Barker was also the first to interview Lee Harvey Oswald's widow Marina, who told him quite candidly when asked why she married Oswald that she did it to get out of her native Russia. On the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 2003, Dallas radio station WBAP-AM interviewed Barker about the events of November 22nd and the days that followed. PBS also recorded an extended interview with him that same year about his experiences.

In one clip available online, a witness to the shooting in Dealey Plaza walks Barker through what he saw that day. In the clip below, Barker interviews Dallas Police Officer Nick McDonald, the man who apprehended Oswald, in an effective method rarely used in television today: A simple demonstration of what happened.

Barker died in 2012 at the age of 84. After a long career with CBS News, Rather now anchors Dan Rather Reports for AXS TV.

As for Kennedy, he himself had direct ties to RTDNA (then RTNDA). In 1952, he was elected to U.S. Senate after three terms in the House. He was the runner-up in balloting to serve as a Vice Presidential running mate to Adlai Stevenson and becoming a national figure. By 1959, the Senator was expected to announce a run for the presidency but remained silent on the issue. In the fall of that year, he was invited to speak to the Association at the RTNDA convention, at the Sheraton Charles Hotel in New Orleans.

A brief audio clip from the convention surfaced this month in a public radio documentary called We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives, produced by the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) for public radio stations across the country to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death. It contains a wealth of audio comments from Kennedy's contemporaries about his life, drawn from the archives of the Kennedy Library in Boston and other sources. You can hear the documentary in its entirety on the PRX website.

At the start of the program's second segment, you'll hear a 30-second clip in which Kennedy is introduced in a light-hearted way, but with a pointed question, asking if he would run for president. Kennedy responded humorously:

In her book, The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, author Mary Ann Watson briefly recounts highlights from Kennedy's speech that day:
...Senator John F. Kennedy addressed the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Though not yet officially a candidate for the presidency, he knew he was standing in front of a group of people who would be critically important in the next year of his life, and, he hoped, many years beyond that. The young politician opened with a reference to the raging scandal by joking about a game show trademark, "You see here today a fugitive from an isolation booth known as the United States Senate...."

Kennedy massaged the self-esteem of his audience: "The greatest days of the television industry are just ahead; its service to the public interest just beginning. And, in time, we will look back to the present difficulties [an allusion to the quiz show scandals of the day] as merely a misstep in a long climb to usefulness in the public interest."

Of informational programming, the senator said: "I know there are a good many Americans who would rather watch the fastest gun in the West.... But, nevertheless, all you can do in the television industry is to make it available. If people will not watch it -- you've met your responsibility. They haven't met theirs."

Thanks to the Kennedy Library and the Paley Center for Media, audio copies of Kennedy's entire speech to the RTNDA audience and the question-and-answer session that followed have survived. Then-president of RTNDA Ralph Renick is heard introducing Kennedy. After an eight-minute speech that praised radio and television reporters for their coverage of Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the U.S. in September of 1959, the Senator took questions from the audience.

He was asked again about his intentions for the presidency and demurred, speaking about the value of the primary election system and hinting that any candidate who was serious about getting the party's nomination would need to take part in at least some primaries, and would have to announce their candidacy no later than January to make it on the ballot, lending credence to a nomination at the party convention in July.

He stated that a Congress of one party and a president of the other was not a good thing for the country, and urged voters to consider putting the same party (either Republican or Democrat, he emphasized) in power in both branches, to better advance legislation. He added that the existing "checks and balances" between the branches of government were sufficient. He also commented on the power of the president to invoke the Taft-Hartley act, alluding to the labor disputes of the time, and on the role of the federal government to enforce the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling on desegregation of public schools.

Finally, he was asked whether he thought newspaper or broadcast reporters were better, and as a former newspaperman himself, Kennedy gamely sided with his print brethren, to hearty laughter from the radio and television news people in the room.

Here is the 21:14 recording in full:

After his election in 1960, in recognition of his open relationship with the media, President Kennedy received RTDNA's highest honor, the Paul White Award, in 1961.