President Kennedy holds first live television news conference

President Kennedy holds first live television news conference

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On January 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy becomes the first U.S. president to hold a live televised news conference.

From a podium in the State Department auditorium, Kennedy read a prepared statement regarding the famine in the Congo, the release of two American aviators from Russian custody and impending negotiations for an atomic test ban treaty. He then opened the floor for questions from reporters, answering queries on a variety of topics including relations with Cuba, voting rights and food aid to impoverished Americans.

Ever since his televised presidential debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy had been aware of the media’s enormous power to sway public opinion. On that day, Kennedy had appeared rested, well-groomed and in control. Nixon, on the other hand, was not as telegenic as Kennedy and appeared sweaty and flustered. His five o’clock shadow created more of a stir than his responses to the moderator’s questions.

Kennedy knew that, in a televised news conference, his appearance would count almost as much as what he said. On this day in 1961, the president exhibited a calm demeanor and responded to reporters’ questions with intelligence and decorum. Kennedy’s ability to project charm, intelligence, strength and openness defined the presidential image in the age of mass media.

READ MORE: How US Presidents Have Communicated with the Public—From the Telegraph to Twitter

See How JFK Created a Presidency for the Television Age

T he Kennedy clan&rsquos dinner table has often been described as a place for heady intellectual discussion, and one can imagine the importance of image being one of the topics up for debate. Patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy had learned from his tenure as a film mogul that &ldquoimage is reality,&rdquo but it took time for his second son, John, to learn that lesson. When he did, his definition of that image would be deeply tied to his own self-realization as a politician, especially through the emerging medium of television.

John Kennedy was most revealing about his conception of image in an article for TV Guide in November 1959, published several months before he ran for the Presidency. Kennedy writes about the general candidate, but clearly he is scrutinizing himself: &ldquoHonesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence &mdash the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate&rsquos &lsquoimage.&rsquo&rdquo He then questions intellectuals who scoff at these TV impressions, preferring instead the content of position papers. Kennedy is definitive in his belief that the images seen on TV &ldquoare likely to be uncannily correct.&rdquo

It was after appearing stiffly on several talk shows, notably Meet the Press, in the early &lsquo50s, that Kennedy learned how to craft such a TV image for himself. It is on full view on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow in October 1953. Joined by his new bride, Jacqueline Bouvier, he switched within seconds from talking about the Taft-Hartley Act to his love of football. From then on, the personal would always be intermingled with the political.

Kennedy was thrust into the national spotlight when he was selected to give the nomination speech for candidate Adlai Stevenson at the 1956 Democratic Convention. He and his writing partner Ted Sorensen threw out the suggested, cliché-ridden remarks, instead formulating a speech that foregrounded the themes that Kennedy would develop over the next eight years. He urged the party to unite around &ldquothe most eloquent, the most forceful, and our most appealing figure.&rdquo These qualities did not exactly define Stevenson, considered by many the quintessential urbane egghead, but they were certainly aspirational for the young senator contemplating his next four years. Impressing the television audience, Kennedy became the most sought after speaker of the Party, catapulting his presidential run.

Watch the First-Ever Live Televised Presidential News Conference

L ess than a week after he was inaugurated&mdashon Jan. 25, 1961&mdashPresident Kennedy stepped before a microphone in the State Department auditorium and spoke to reporters about a range of topics: upcoming nuclear treaty negotiations, a plan to help address a famine in the Congo, the release of two U.S. airmen who had been detained in the USSR. He then took questions. The whole thing took a little more than a half an hour.

While the subject matter was undoubtedly important, the manner in which it happened would prove to be even more significant: that presidential news conference was the first to be broadcast live on TV.

Throughout the campaign for the White House in 1960, television had proved to be a game-changer, most famously for the debates in which Kennedy outshone the far less telegenic Richard Nixon. Throughout his tenure, Kennedy proved that he was adept at using the still-fresh medium to communicate directly with the American people.

President Kennedy holds first live television news conference

Lt Col Charlie Brown

On January 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy becomes the first U.S. president to hold a live televised news conference.

From a podium in the State Department auditorium, Kennedy read a prepared statement regarding the famine in the Congo, the release of two American aviators from Russian custody and impending negotiations for an atomic test ban treaty. He then opened the floor for questions from reporters, answering queries on a variety of topics including relations with Cuba, voting rights and food aid to impoverished Americans.

Ever since his televised presidential debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy had been aware of the media’s enormous power to sway public opinion. On that day, Kennedy had appeared rested, well-groomed and in control. Nixon, on the other hand, was not as telegenic as Kennedy and appeared sweaty and flustered. His five o’clock shadow created more of a stir than his responses to the moderator’s questions.

Kennedy knew that, in a televised news conference, his appearance would count almost as much as what he said. On this day in 1961, the president exhibited a calm demeanor and responded to reporters’ questions with intelligence and decorum. Kennedy’s ability to project charm, intelligence, strength and openness defined the presidential image in the age of mass media.

Hintgen: Television captured JFK's charisma

Voters in Otter Tail County more often than not vote for Republicans for president. This was the case in 1960 when Richard Nixon won the overall county vote against John F. Kennedy.

But once JFK took office, he captivated people of both parties with his charisma.

President Kennedy was the first United States president to hold live TV news conferences. He held 64 news conferences, an average of one every 16 days, from January 1961 until his tragic death in November 1963.

Most of those news conferences were held in the spacious state department auditorium which could hold up to 300 people in the nation’s capital.

A typical news conference ran for about a half hour, in mid-afternoon, allowing time for the major TV networks to prepare news reports from what was discussed. One of those early evening news shows was the NBC "Huntley-Brinkley Report," anchored by Chet Huntley in New York and David Brinkley in Washington, D.C.

Many kids in Otter Tail County could catch the end of some of JFK’s TV news conferences, after school, before the news briefings ended close to 4 p.m. Central Standard Time. Some of those kids had traveled with their parents and other family members to Fargo to see Kennedy in 1960, while he was on the campaign trail.

Back then the population of the United States was 180 million people. On average, an estimated 18 million viewers watched JFK’s news conferences.

Kennedy would open each news conference with updates on economic stimulus, foreign affairs, U.S. defense, voting rights and other topics.

Kennedy was at ease with newsmen and women and was well prepared when he took questions from several reporters.

In a 1962 interview, JFK said, “There isn’t any doubt that I could not do my job as president in a free society without a very, very active press.”

Polls showed that viewers had a 91% favorable impression of JFK’s news conference performances.

President Kennedy also had humor during his news conferences.

Asked a reporter in July 1963, “The Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you and your administration were pretty much a failure. How do you feel about that?”

The Kennedy Press Conference, Always Good for a Laugh

A Kennedy press conference. Photo courtesy JFK Library, taken by Abbie Rowe.

A Kennedy press conference was something to look forward to because of the young president’s witty responses to reporters.

John F. Kennedy knew he looked good on television, and as the new president he wasted no time in exploiting that advantage. He held the first live, nationally televised presidential news conference on Jan. 25, 1961.

Thirty minutes into that first press conference, Kennedy realized something else: His wit disarmed the press and won over the viewers.

Walter Shapiro writes in The New Republic,

Through most of the January 25 broadcast, JFK treats the format with the gravity of a presidential debate. There is no hint of levity … About a half hour into the press conference, Kennedy tries a small joke at the end of a lengthy answer about the House Rules Committee, a Southern-reactionary bastion that continually would bottle up liberal legislation during his presidency. After expressing the vain hope that “a small group of men” would not prevent the entire House from voting, Kennedy added, “I merely give my view as an interested citizen.” As the reporters in their rumpled suits and narrow ties burst into laughter, a puckish grin crosses Kennedy’s face as he revels in his look-what-I-discovered-about-live-television moment.

Sixty-five million people watched that night. A poll taken in 1961 found 90 percent of respondents had seen one of his first three press conferences. Kennedy would hold a total of 64.

During a 1962 press conference, he was asked whether he was annoyed by the ribbing he and his family took, especially by Vaughn Meader’s comedy record, The First Family. Kennedy replied, “I listened to Mr. Meader’s record and, frankly, I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. So, now he’s annoyed.”

During another, correspondent May Craig asked him whether he thought “Mrs. Murphy” should have to take into her home a lodger she doesn’t want — or would he accept a change in the civil rights bill to exempt small boardinghouses?

Kennedy replied, “The question would be, it seems to me, Mrs. Craig, whether Mrs. Murphy had a substantial impact on interstate commerce.”

During one press conference, he was asked if he had to do it over again would he work for the presidency and whether he recommended it to others.

“The answer to the first is yes and the second is no, I don’t recommend it to others,” he said.

Kennedy’s delivery was key to his wit. You can see all 64 of the Kennedy press conferences here.

John F. Kennedy and the Press

"The fact of the matter is that the time when President Kennedy started televised press conferences there were only three or four newspapers in the entire United States that carried a full transcript of a presidential press conference. Therefore, what people read was a distillation. We thought that they should have the opportunity to see it in full."

Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary to President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Interview

The public loved John F. Kennedy's press conferences, although some of his advisors worried about the risk of mistakes by the president and others thought the press showed insufficient respect for the dignity of his office. By November 1963, President Kennedy had held 64 news conferences, an average of one every sixteen days. The first, less than a week after his inauguration, was viewed by an estimated 65 million people. A poll taken in 1961 indicated that 90 percent of those interviewed had watched at least one of JFK's first three press conferences. The average audience for all the broadcast conferences was 18 million viewers.

President Kennedy helped to significantly enlarge the role of television as a news medium, but he continued to be a voracious consumer of print journalism. During an interview in December 1962, Sander Vanocur of NBC asked Kennedy about his reading habits, and the president gave his overall view of the contributions and responsibilities of the press in a free society.

Sander Vanocur (NBC): You once said that you were reading more and enjoying it less. Are you still as avid a newspaper reader, magazine—I remember those of us who traveled with you on the campaign, a magazine wasn't safe around you.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. No, no, I think it is invaluable, even though it may cause you—it is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it is an invaluable arm of the presidency, as a check really on what is going on in the administration, and more things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information. So I would think that Mr. Khrushchev operating a totalitarian system, which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret, and all the rest—there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.

American History: Kennedy Becomes President

We begin this week's story on January twentieth, nineteen sixty-one, the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy became president of the United States.

It had snowed heavily the night before. Few cars were in the streets of Washington.

The outgoing president, Dwight Eisenhower, was seventy years old. John Kennedy was just forty-three. He was the first American president born in the twentieth century.

Both Eisenhower and Kennedy served in World War Two. Eisenhower had been commander of allied forces in Europe. Kennedy had been a young Navy officer in the Pacific.

He came from a politically influential family from Boston, Massachusetts, but he was a fresh face in national politics. To millions of Americans, he represented a chance for a new beginning.

Not everyone liked him, however. Many people thought he was too young to be president. Others did not like the idea of electing the nation's first Roman Catholic president.

Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, ran against Kennedy in the election of nineteen sixty. Many people believed Nixon was a stronger opponent of communism than Kennedy.

The election of nineteen-sixty was one of the closest in American history. Kennedy defeated Nixon by fewer than one hundred twenty thousand votes. Now, on the steps of the Capitol building, he would be sworn-in as the nation's thirty-fifth president.

One of the speakers at the inauguration was the eighty-six-year-old poet Robert Frost. The wind was blowing the paper in his hands and the sun was shining off the snow on the ground and into his eyes. Kennedy stood to help him. But the famous poet was unable to read much of the poem he had written specially for the ceremony.

Instead, he began another one that he knew from memory. Here is a studio recording of Robert Frost reading his poem "The Gift Outright."

ROBERT FROST: The land was ours before we were the land's.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England's, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

Soon it was time for the new president to speak. He was not wearing a winter coat or a hat, unlike many of the people around him.

One of the issues that Kennedy talked about was the danger of what he called "the deadly atom." He was taking office during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides had atomic bombs. People worried that there could a World War Three that would end in nuclear destruction.

Kennedy said both sides should make serious proposals for the inspection and control of nuclear weapons. He said they should explore the good in science, instead of the terrors.

JOHN KENNEDY: "Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce . Let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."

Kennedy also spoke about a torch of leadership being passed to a new generation of Americans. He urged young people to take the torch and accept responsibility for the future. He also urged other countries to work with the United States to create a better world.

JOHN KENNEDY: "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

John Kennedy was in office less than two weeks when the Soviet Union released two American airmen. The Soviets had shot down their spy plane over the Bering Sea. About sixty million people watched as Kennedy announced the airmen's release.

It was the first presidential news conference broadcast live on television in the United States. Kennedy welcomed the release as a step toward better relations with the Soviet Union.

The next month, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made another move toward better relations. He sent Kennedy a message. The message said that disarmament would be a great joy for all people on earth.

A few weeks later, President Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps. He had spoken about his idea during the election campaign. The Peace Corps would send thousands of Americans to developing countries to teach and provide technical assistance.

Soon after the Peace Corps was created, another program was announced. The purpose of the Alliance for Progress was to provide economic aid for ten years to nations in Latin America.

Another thing that Kennedy had talked about during the election campaign was the space program. He believed the United States should continue to explore outer space.

The Soviet Union had gotten there first. It launched the world's first satellite in nineteen fifty-seven. Then, in April nineteen sixty-one, the Soviet Union sent the first manned spacecraft into orbit around earth.

That same month, the new American president suffered a foreign policy failure. On April seventeenth, more than one thousand Cuban exiles landed on a beach in western Cuba. They had received training and equipment from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

They were supposed to lead a revolution to overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro. The place where they landed was Bahia de Cochinos -- the Bay of Pigs.

The invasion failed. Most of the exiles were killed or captured.

It was not Kennedy's idea to try to start a revolution in Cuba. Officials in the last administration of Dwight Eisenhower had planned it. However, most of Kennedy's advisers supported the idea. And he approved it.

In public, the president said he was responsible for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In private, he said "All my life I've known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid."

What happened in Cuba damaged John Kennedy's popularity. His next months in office would be a struggle to regain the support of the people. That will be our story next week.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts, and pictures at And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

This was program #210. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.

Federal Government Edit

    : Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Pennsylvania) (until January 20), John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) (starting January 20) : Richard Nixon (R-California) (until January 20), Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) (starting January 20) : Earl Warren (California) : Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) (until November 16), vacant (starting November 16) : Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) (until January 3), Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) (starting January 3) : 86th (until January 3), 87th (starting January 3)

Governors Edit

    : John M. Patterson (Democratic) : William A. Egan (Democratic) : Paul Fannin (Republican) : Orval Faubus (Democratic) : Pat Brown (Democratic) : Stephen L. R. McNichols (Democratic) : Abraham A. Ribicoff (Democratic) (until January 21), John N. Dempsey (Democratic) (starting January 21) : David P. Buckson (Republican) (until January 17), Elbert N. Carvel (Democratic) (starting January 17) : LeRoy Collins (Democratic) (until January 3), C. Farris Bryant (Democratic) (starting January 3) : Ernest Vandiver (Democratic) : William F. Quinn (Republican) : Robert E. Smylie (Republican) : William G. Stratton (Republican) (until January 9), Otto Kerner, Jr. (Democratic) (starting January 9) : Harold W. Handley (Republican) (until January 9), Matthew E. Welsh (Democratic) (starting January 9) : Herschel C. Loveless (Democratic) (until January 12), Norman A. Erbe (Republican) (starting January 12) : George Docking (Democratic) (until January 9), John Anderson, Jr. (Republican) (starting January 9) : Bert T. Combs (Democratic) : Jimmie H. Davis (Democratic) : John H. Reed (Republican) : J. Millard Tawes (Democratic) : Foster Furcolo (Democratic) (until January 5), John A. Volpe (Republican) (starting January 5) : G. Mennen Williams (Democratic) (until January 1), John Swainson (Democratic) (starting January 1) : Orville L. Freeman (Democratic) (until January 2), Elmer L. Andersen (Republican) (starting January 2) : Ross R. Barnett (Democratic) : James T. Blair, Jr. (Democratic) (until January 9), John M. Dalton (Democratic) (starting January 9) : J. Hugo Aronson (Republican) (until January 2), Donald Grant Nutter (Republican) (starting January 2) : Dwight W. Burney (Republican) (until January 5), Frank B. Morrison (Democratic) (starting January 5) : Grant Sawyer (Democratic) : Wesley Powell (Republican) : Robert B. Meyner (Democratic) : John Burroughs (Democratic) (until January 1), Edwin L. Mechem (Republican) (starting January 1) : Nelson Rockefeller (Republican) : Luther H. Hodges (Democratic) (until January 5), Terry Sanford (Democratic) (starting January 5) : John E. Davis (Republican) (until January 4), William L. Guy (Democratic) (starting January 4) : Michael DiSalle (Democratic) : J. Howard Edmondson (Democratic) : Mark Hatfield (Republican) : David L. Lawrence (Democratic) : Christopher Del Sesto (Republican) (until January 3), John A. Notte, Jr. (Democratic) (starting January 3) : Ernest Hollings (Democratic) : Ralph Herseth (Democratic) (until January 3), Archie M. Gubbrud (Republican) (starting January 3) : Buford Ellington (Democratic) : Price Daniel (Democratic) : George Dewey Clyde (Republican) : Robert T. Stafford (Republican) (until January 5), F. Ray Keyser, Jr. (Republican) (starting January 5) : J. Lindsay Almond (Democratic) : Albert D. Rosellini (Democratic) : Cecil H. Underwood (Republican) (until January 16), William Wallace Barron (Democratic) (starting January 16) : Gaylord A. Nelson (Democratic) : John J. Hickey (Democratic) (until January 2), Jack R. Gage (Democratic) (starting January 2)

Lieutenant Governors Edit

    : Albert B. Boutwell (Democratic) : Hugh Wade (Democratic) : Nathan Green Gordon (Democratic) : Glenn Malcolm Anderson (Democratic) : Robert Lee Knous (Democratic) : John N. Dempsey (Democratic) (until January 21), Anthony J. Armentano (Democratic) (starting January 21) : vacant (until January 17), Eugene Lammot (Democratic) (starting January 17) : Garland T. Byrd (Democratic) : James Kealoha (Republican) : W. E. Drevlow (Democratic) : John William Chapman (Republican) (until January 9), Samuel H. Shapiro (Democratic) (starting January 9) : Crawford F. Parker (Republican) (until January 9), Richard O. Ristine (Republican) (starting January 9) : Edward J. McManus (Democratic) (until January 12), W. L. Mooty (Democratic) (starting January 12) : Joseph W. Henkle, Sr. (Democratic) (until January 9), Harold H. Chase (Republican) (starting January 9) : Wilson W. Wyatt (Democratic) : C. C. Aycock (Democratic) : vacant (until January 5), Edward F. McLaughlin, Jr. (Democratic) (starting January 5) : John B. Swainson (Democratic) (until January 1), T. John Lesinski (Democratic) (starting January 1) : Karl Rolvaag (Democratic) : Paul B. Johnson, Jr. (Democratic) : vacant (until January 9), Hilary A. Bush (Democratic) (starting January 9) : Paul Cannon (Democratic) (until January 2), Tim M. Babcock (Republican) (starting January 2) : Dwight W. Burney (Republican) : Rex Bell (Republican) : Ed V. Mead (Democratic) (until January 1), Tom Bolack (Republican) (starting January 1) : Malcolm Wilson (Republican) :
    • until January 5: Luther E. Barnhardt (Democratic)
    • January 5-August 19: Harvey Cloyd Philpott (Democratic)
    • starting August 19: vacant

    January–March Edit

    • January 3
      • President Dwight Eisenhower announces that the United States has severed diplomatic and consular relations with Cuba.
      • At the National Reactor Testing Station near Idaho Falls, Idaho, atomic reactorSL-1 explodes, killing 3 military technicians.
      • A U.S. B-52 Stratofortress, with two nuclear bombs, crashes near Goldsboro, North Carolina.
      • Musician Bob Dylan reportedly makes his way to New York City after bumming a ride in Madison, Wisconsin. Dylan is likely on his way to visit his idol Woody Guthrie. He later finds fame in the Greenwich Village protest folk music scene.
      • In Washington, D.C.John F. Kennedy delivers the first live presidentialnews conference. In it, he announces that the Soviet Union has freed the 2 surviving crewmen of a USAFRB-47 reconnaissance plane shot down by Soviet flyers over the Barents Sea July 1, 1960 (see RB-47H shot down).
      • One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Walt Disney's 17th animated feature film, is released, its financial success pulling the studio out of another financial slump from the initial underperformance of Sleeping Beauty.
      • President Kennedy warns the Soviet Union to avoid interfering with the United Nations pacification of the Congo. [2]
      • A SabenaBoeing 707 crashes near Brussels, Belgium, killing 73, including the entire United States figure skating team and several coaches.
      • United States delegate to the United Nations Security CouncilAdlai Stevenson votes against Portuguese policies in Africa. John F. Kennedy proposes a long-term "Alliance for Progress" between the United States and Latin America. [2]

      April–June Edit

      President John F. Kennedy before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961

      Former Area Broadcaster Dies at 78

      Illinois native worked in both radio, television

      "Bill Richards," an affable, always-smiling, former Charleston broadcaster, died at home Wednesday. He was 78.

      The Illinois native, whose real name was William Schillings, landed in Charleston on his way to Arizona in the mid-1940s. But he stayed, bought a few suits on credit at Frankenberger's and called WGKV-radio looking for a job.

      He spent eight years as a disc jockey and then program director there before joining WCHS radio and television in 1954.

      He and his wife, Betty, a native of Beckley, had two daughters as Richards spent 19 years as the familiar TV weatherman for WCHS.

      "I don't think I got it right more than 10 times," Richards said in a newspaper interview in 1974, after he had joined the state Chamber of Commerce as a staff assistant.

      During his TV tenure, Richards "adopted" the town of Richwood, often promoting the ramp festival -- though he wouldn't eat ramps.

      One of his favorite roles, however, was that of playing Santa Claus at Christmas.

      A World War II veteran and member of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Schillings, is survived by his wife of 54 years, and two daughters, Lynn Schillings and Patricia Schillings, both of Charleston.

      President Kennedy holds first live television news conference - HISTORY

      The 1960s was marked by clashes of ideologies. In the South, blacks fought a stubborn white establishment for the rights they were owed under the Constitution.

      Abroad, the United States fought a multi-front battle against the spread Communism. On college campuses across the country, a new generation of Americans rejected the post-WWII, conservative values of their parents.

      And even within the Civil Rights movement, the non-violent activists under Martin Luther King, Jr., butted heads with the militant followers of Malcolm X. The result was a decade mired in turbulence -- but also one that brought important changes.

      Journalists and media personalities

      Walter Cronkite

      In the 1950s, Cronkite helped invent the role of the anchorman. Over the course of the 1960s, he established himself as a pre-eminent figure in television journalism. His coverage of the assassination of president Kennedy in 1963 helped make him the most trusted journalist in America, and gave him credibility when he criticized the Vietnam War publicly as the decade wore on.

      David Brinkley

      As part of a two-anchor team with Chet Huntley, Brinkley helped NBC put together a program that challenged CBS's grip on broadcast news. Brinkley's ability to write for television revolutionized broadcast style, and made him a fixture in the format. He would stay with NBC until the 1980s, when he moved over to ABC to host This Week, the first of the Sunday morning political roundup shows.

      Edward R. Murrow

      Murrow's illustrious career in the media came to an end in the early 1960s. In 1958, following the cancellation of See It Now, Murrow delivered a scathing speech to a meeting of radio and television executives, chastising them for the shallow and mundane nature of television programming. Murrow soon parted ways with William Paley and CBS, but not before one final news classic in 1960: Harvest of Shame , a documentary about the struggles of migrant workers in the United States. After CBS, Murrow took a position in the Kennedy administration as Director of the U.S. Information Agency. Following an ironic attempt to prevent the BBC from airing Harvest of Shame, Murrow would soon succumb to lung cancer.

      Barbara Walters

      Walters joined NBC's Today show in 1961 as a writer and researcher, before moving on camera as the "Today Girl". Starting with light assignments, Walters eventually wrote and edited her own stories, but received little respect from here male contemporaries. Frank McGee, the Today Show host, insisted on always asking the first question in joint interviews. Walters would not receive official recogniztion as co-anchor of the Today Show until after McGee's death in 1974.

      David Halberstam

      Halberstam was among the first journalists to publicly criticize the United States for its involvement in Vietnam. His reporting for the New York Times on the conflict so displeased the president that JFK asked Halberstam's editor to move him to a different bureau. In the early 1970s, Halberstam would publish The Best and the Brightest, a rebuke of the Vietnam policies set forth by Kennedy and LBJ.

      Helen Thomas

      After a short stint as a cub reporter, Helen Thomas joined United Press International (UPI) in 1943. In 1960, she followed the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and landed among the press corps in the White House. Thomas spent the next five decades, and nine presidents, sitting in the front row of every presidential press conference. She was the only female, print journalist to travel with Nixon to China in 1972. Known as the "Sitting Buddha," Thomas was known for saying "Thank you, Mr. President" at the end of every press conference.

      Ralph Nader

      Nader took the activist identity he had built for himself at Princeton and Harvard Law to a national level in 1965 when he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing critique of General Motors' safety record. The book caused a stir among the public, and eventually in Washington, where legislators grilled GM executives and passed new car safety laws. The success of his the book paved the way for a career of public activism, and later as a presidential candidate for the Green Party.

      Johnny Carson

      Carson took over the Tonight Show from Jack Paar in 1962, and quickly turned the already successful format into a ratings and advertising powerhouse. Carson's quick wit and easygoing manner helped bring in the big name celebrities – and the big-time dollars – that made the Tonight Show a late night institution. He would host the Tonight Show into the 1990s.

      Helen Gurley Brown

      Following a successful stint with a prominant advertizing agency, Brown wrote the best selling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962. In 1965, she became editor-in-chief of struggling magazine, Cosmopolitian, and remade it into an advocate for sexual freedom and empowerment for woman in the 1960s. Here leadership proved so successful, the term "Cosmo Girl" was coined to describe the new "liberated" woman the magazine targeted.

      Jann Wenner

      Wenner was only 21 when he published the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967. A Berkeley dropout, he was among the first magazine editors to access the untapped circulation potential of the youth market. Rolling Stone's focus on music and youth-culture issues made it an instant success, and a powerful political voice in a turbulent era.

      Tom Wolfe

      Wolfe was among the first writers to embrace the techniques of a “new journalism” – one in which the narrator was largely involved with the story he told. Wolfe made a name for himself with the 1965 publication of the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, an exploration of the culture of hot rod enthusiasts. However, his most famous work from the 1960s was the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a account of Ken Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters.

      Political Scene

      Kennedy delivering his inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 1961.

      In 1960 John F. Kennedy took over the presidency of a nation that was on the verge of chaos. Abroad, the United States' relationship with the nations of the Eastern Bloc was quickly deteriorating. Closer to home, Kennedy had to address the threat of Communism spreading in the Western Hemisphere. His desire to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba led to a crucial misstep in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Tensions between America and Communist countries mounted, and the threat of nuclear war became increasingly real. Only through swift diplomatic measures was all-out nuclear war avoided in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      Kennedy faced equally monumental challenges domestically. The seeds of the Civil Rights movement that had been planted in the late 50s began to blossom and threatened to tear the country apart. In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to send the National Guard to Mississippi to intervene on behalf of a black man trying to enroll in classes at Ole' Miss.

      Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on as Lyndon Jonhson signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

      When Lyndon Baines Johnson took the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, he used the political acumen he had honed in the Senate to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But growing dissent for the nation's involvement in Vietnam brought LBJ's political career to an end and paved the way for the re-emergence of Richard M. Nixon.

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      Social Climate

      Many of the baby boomer generation rebelled against the conservative ideals of their parents generation.

      The social climate of the 1960s can be viewed as a systematic rejection of the conformity of the 1950s. A generation of young Americans born after WWII dismissed the mores of their parents and instead embraced the hedonistic values of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The hippie movement culminated with the Woodstock music fesival in the summer of 1969, a symbolic end to the innocence of the era of free love and psychedelic drugs.

      Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meet prior to a press conference in Washington DC, March 26, 1964. This would be the only meeting of the two civil rights leaders and would last less than a minute. Both leaders would be assassinated before the end of the 1960s.

      The counter-culture also manifested itself in the political arena, where college students and Civil Rights activists took on what they perceived as an oppressive and unjust political system. In the early- and mid-60s, Civil Rights activists organized marches and protests around the country. In 1963, against the wishes of the Kennedy administration, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a 200,000 man march on Washington. The Civil Rights Act was signed the next year.

      Anti-war protests are attacked by police in Grant Park near to where the Democrats held their chaotic 1968 presidential convention.

      As the nation's involvement in Vietnam escalated, and involved more of the nation's youth, college students protested the war and the draft. Their dissatisfaction boiled over outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where protests turned into riots. The atmosphere inside the convention was tense as well.

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      Media Moments

      September 26, 1960 &mdash the Kennedy-Nixon debate

      For the first time in history, a presidential debate is televised on national television. Vice President Richared M. Nixon, a seasoned politician, underestimated the importance of his television appearance. While Kennedy appeared calm and confident, an ill Nixon seemed nervous and noticeably sweaty.

      1960-1963 &mdash The Kennedy Years

      John F. Kennedy spent his short, three years as president using his skill as a speaker to deliver the precisely crafted words of his aids. The result was a body of oration and media performance that endures in popular culture.

      1962 &mdash Telstar launched

      On July 10, 1962, NASA launched this spherical satellite into space with much fanfare. Later in the day, live broadcasts were beamed for the first time between North America and Europe. Funded by both private firms and national postal services in the United States, Great Britain and France, the new technology would revolutionize numerous communication industries.

      August 28, 1963 &mdash "I have a dream"

      August 28, 1963: From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the 200,000 civil-rights marchers who had descended on Washington, D.C. The "I Have a Dream" speech would become one of the most well-known in American history. King won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

      November 1963 &mdash Death of a president

      Undoubtedly one of the most famous events of the 20th century, the assasination of President Kennedy in November 1963 brought the nation to a halt from the time it was reported on Friday afternoon, until the funeral procession on Monday. It marked a time when TV brought an entire nation together.

      February 1964 &mdash The British Invasion begins

      A nation still mourning the assassination of its president was ready for distraction in early 1964. The Beatles, four lads from Liverpool, England, provided that distraction, signaling the start of a musical British Invasion. The Beatles first performances in America were broadcast nationwide on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Ed Sullivan announced "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!", no one could have predicted the impact they would have on Baby Boomer culture and entertainment media. Inspired by American rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues artists, the Beatles were one of the most influential bands of the 20th century.

      September 7, 1964 &mdash The "Daisy" commercial airs

      Aired by the Johnson campaign only one time, the "Daisy" commercial became an infamous example of the power of television in presidential politics. Artistic and powerful in it's simplicity, the short advertisement never mentioned Barry Goldwater by name.

      November 7, 1967&mdash Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act

      Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, creating the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to provide content for television, National Public Radio (NPR) to do the same for radio, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) for oversight. In final decades of the century, some conservative politicians and media pundits charged PBS and NPR with having a liberal bias, and attempted to end federal funding for the organization. While CPB budgets may have been reduced, public broadcasting continued to garner an audience that was the envy of many commercial media managers.

      February 1, 1968 &mdash Eddie Adams photographs execution

      AP photographer Eddie Adams captured the execution of a Viet Cong leader in a photograph that earned him the Pulitzer Prize, and fueled the public's growing dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam.

      June 4, 1968 &mdash The Second Kennedy Assassination

      Two months to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assasinated in Memphis, Bobby Kennedy was in Los Angeles stumping for his recently-announced presidential candidacy. As he left the podium at the Ambassador Hotel, Sirhan Sirhan shot him in the head. Kennedy died later that afternoon.

      July 20, 1969 &mdash One Giant Leap

      NASA accomplished the goal set forth by President Kennedy when Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface in July 1969. The moon landing was the most watched event in history at that point in time.

      Trends in Journalism

      The evening news brought the disturbing realities of the Vietnam War into Americans' homes.

      By the 1960s, it had become pracitcal to get fresh images of events from abroad onto the news every evening. The broadcast of disturbing footage from Vietnam on television gave the public a daily dose of the horrors of war and swayed public opinion. The press focus on Vietnam eventually helped bring the Johnson administration to its knees.

      As television became increasingly popular, writers reacted with the creation of a "new journalism" based largely on literary technique and first-person accounts. Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Hunter S. Thompson (Hell's Angels) all published works that straddled the line between literature and journalism.

      Vice President Spiro Agnew had the press targeted virtually from the start of the Nixon administration.

      The 1960s also bore witness to widespread scrutiny of the press. Scholars like Marshall McLuhan founded an academic movement which sought to explain the media's relationship to culture. And the administration of Richard Nixon, who had developed a profound distaste for the press by the time of his election in 1968, publicly ridiculed the media for what it viewed as subversive practices. Vice President Spiro Agnew, in particular, lambasted the press for its supposedly pro-Democrat leanings.

      Professor Emeritus Rick Musser :: [email protected]
      University of Kansas, School of Journalism & Mass Communications, 1976-2008

      American Decades © International Thompson Publishing Company

      Original site designed May 2003 by graduate students Heather Attig and Tony Esparza
      First update: January 2004 by gradute students Staci Wolfe and Lisa Coble
      Second update: May 2007 by graduate students Chris Raine and Jack Hope
      Complete graphical and content revision: December 2007 by graduate student Jack Hope

      This site was built by students in Rick Musser's Journalism History class as a study aid. While both the teacher and the graduate students who prepared the site have tried to assure that the information is accurate and original, you will certainly find many examples of copyrighted materials designated for teaching and research as part of a college level history of journalism course. That material is considered "fair use” under Title 17, Chapter 1, Sec. 107 of the Fair Use Statute and the Copyright Act of 1976. Contact [email protected] with further questions.

      The material was last checked for accuracy and live links December 31, 2007. This site is in no way affiliated with any of the people displayed in its contents, their management, or their copyright owners. This site has a collection of links to other sites, and is not responsible for any content appearing on external sites. This site is subject to change.

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