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Thursday 14 December 2017

How broadcasters reported the shocking killing of a president

RTE newsreader Charles Mitchell.
RTE newsreader Charles Mitchell.
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Paul Melia, Kim Bielenberg and Graham Clifford

IT was Telefís Éireann broadcaster Charles Mitchel who was given the grim task of breaking the news that Ireland's favourite son was dead.

At 7.05pm on November 22, 1963, the nation was stunned into silence when the station broke into a sports programme to report that President Kennedy had been the victim of a shooting.

"We have just heard that an attempt has been made on President Kennedy's life in Dallas, Texas," the veteran newsreader said. "First reports say that he has been badly wounded."

Just 20 minutes later a visibly moved Mitchel came back on air to announce: "President Kennedy has been shot dead by an assassin in Dallas, Texas."

People simply didn't believe the news, and there were numerous calls to the station seeking confirmation.

Up until that point it had been a run-of-the-mill Friday evening for presentation director at Telefís Éireann Michael O'Carroll.

The sports programme being aired was due to continue until closedown, but just moments before 7pm somebody from the newsroom burst into his studio to tell him Kennedy had been shot.

"The head went down for a second. I'd lived and studied in New York for a year and even met JFK on Wall Street once, so of course the news shook me but I was effectively running the ship and had to organise coverage," he recalls.

"Everyone congregated around my desk and I made the decision to send for Charles Mitchel who was in the canteen having his evening tea. He sprinted from there back to the studio. It appeared at the time that he was very emotional on air, and perhaps to a degree he was, but he was also very out of breath."

The newsreader was rushed into a small studio and a caption reading 'special news bulletin' appeared across the screen.

Although most knew the president was dead, not until an hour after the first reports landed could the news be confirmed.

Between bulletins, it was decided to take the station off the air, and funereal music was played.

"I left the studios briefly and was astonished to discover on my return that someone had put the station back on air and the programme The Thin Man featuring JFK's brother-in-law Peter Lawford was showing," Mr O'Carroll recalls. "Immediately we reverted to the serious music and bulletins once I returned."

An hour after the first reports appeared, sports commentator Micheal O'Hehir called the newsdesk in Donnybrook from New York. He had been sent to broadcast the Laurel Park horse race, and immediately prepared a report which described the shock and confusion experienced by the US public.

24 November 1964 - John Bowman takes to the streets of Dublin to get people’s reactions to the death of President Kennedy (audio only)

Footage courtesy of the RTE Archives


"Here in New York, everybody seems to be stunned and shocked by the terrible news, news that flashed across the United States just over an hour ago," he reported.

"There then followed almost an hour of utter confusion with reports. The president was dead. The president was still alive, and then 35 minutes after he had been removed from the scene of the shooting to the hospital, the news came through that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead.

"And here in New York, New York so often bubbling with excitement and joy and pleasure, one only has to look along the streets to see how already it has hit the people of this big city. I was on the streets a few moments ago, and here and there groups surrounded transistor radio and men and women weeping with the news over that radio, that the president had died."

Public reaction on the streets of Dublin was heartfelt. "It's really stupid actually," one person told Radio Éireann. "Anybody that would really want to shoot a president who has done so much for us, and world affairs . . . what's going to be done now? His death is a real loss to the whole world, not just the United States."

A crying woman told reporters: "He was so good, he was good for everyone. He was so good, you could see it in his face. All I can say is the Lord have mercy on him."

Live pictures of the funeral procession on the following Monday were beamed across the Atlantic on Telefís Éireann via the new Telstar satellite. The live feed could only be picked up for half an hour during the afternoon here.

The Irish Independent reported: "At 4.36pm Irish television viewers were suddenly brought face to face with the historic scenes outside the White House as the communications satellite came into the right orbital position and American television signals were bounced to Europe."

In "amazingly clear pictures" President Eamon de Valera was said to have stood out from the crowd of world leaders.

At 5.06pm just as the celebration of Requiem Mass was starting, the picture faded as the satellite passed out of range.

Irish Independent

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