Lee Harvey Oswald's murder -- The murder of JFK's alleged assassin was broadcast live on NBC 37 years ago

By Joshua Rich
December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder

It was Nov. 24, 1963, less than 48 hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, and presidential aide George Reedy was watching TV. In an instant, Reedy (and millions of other Americans) saw nightclub owner Jack Ruby gun down accused triggerman Lee Harvey Oswald live on NBC. For a moment, the aide thought he was watching an Edward G. Robinson gangster flick.

Though confused by this unimaginable twist of history, Reedy was on to something: In the wake of televised fare like the Army-McCarthy hearings and the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the lines between news and entertainment were becoming blurred. ”If you look at the future of television news, [Oswald’s murder] was a preview of things to come,” says Steven D. Stark, author of Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today.

Eager to follow the aftermath of the Nov. 22 assassination, a mourning nation turned in record numbers to TV coverage — presented commercial-free, at an estimated cost of up to $4 million per network — even though the level of reportage remained relatively primitive. There were no TV cameras to provide a live feed of the presidential motorcade or the assassination itself (the famed Zapruder film, the only known film record of Kennedy’s killing, was purchased by LIFE magazine and first aired on national TV in 1975), and television newsmen like Walter Cronkite only announced the President’s death after confirming it with wire-service reports.

Two days later, on Sunday, the 24th, millions watched on NBC as Oswald — who had proclaimed himself an innocent ”patsy” — was being led through the basement of a Dallas jail when Ruby jumped out of the crowd of reporters and shot him in the abdomen. (CBS and ABC, which had been covering the procession of Kennedy’s caisson to the U.S. Capitol, aired the killing later using videotape, a rarity at the time.) Ironically, parading Oswald in front of a phalanx of TV cameras may well have given Ruby, who died while incarcerated in 1967, his chance. ”Once you made [the transport] into a media event,” Stark says, ”it was easy for Ruby to get inside.”

And once inside, Ruby committed the only homicide ever aired live on national TV — one of the most vivid images to emerge from a weekend when TV replaced print as the primary source of news. Thereafter, Americans would gather around their sets to watch historic events (from Watergate to the 2000 election) unfold, and to unite during times of triumph (the Apollo moon landing) and tragedy (the Vietnam War). The haunting impact of Oswald’s shooting and Kennedy’s funeral, says Stark, ”starts television on a course where it tends to become as much a part of the story as the story itself.”

Time Capsule; November 24, 1963
At the movies, Claire Bloom and Julie Harris star in director Robert Wise’s freaky phantasmagoria The Haunting. In music, Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind edges out LPs from Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley for the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart. In bookstores, Victor Lasky’s JFK: The Man and the Myth is the top nonfiction book. And in the news, two years into America’s military buildup in Vietnam, a camp where the U.S. trains South Vietnamese soldiers is overrun by Communist guerrillas, leaving 37 dead and four Americans missing.