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Secrets of the Dead | One PM Central Standard Time

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John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

Watch Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 8pm on WMHT TV

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States serving from January 20, 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Five decades later, as we mark the 50th anniversary of his death, JFK: One PM Central Standard Time, a Secrets of the Dead special presentation, tells the story of two men, one the President of the United States John F. Kennedy – shot in Dallas and rushed to Parkland hospital, his fate unknown – and the other respected CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, knowing he had to get the story right amid myriad uncertainties that tragic day. 

Narrated by George Clooney, JFK: One PM Central Standard Time recounts the riveting story of the reporting from Dallas and the CBS Newsroom in New York from the moment President Kennedy was shot until Cronkite’s emotional pronouncement of his death at 1 p.m. CST. The program features interviews with President Bill Clinton and Brian Williams, anchor & managing editor, NBC Nightly News and Rock Center with Brian Williams, rarely seen archival footage of Kennedy, Cronkite and moving memories from the producers, writers and reporters who were there on the day, including, Susan Bennett, former UPI Bureau Chief; Ron Bonn, CBS News, 1963; Bill Hampton, UPI Bureau Dallas, 1963; Marvin Kalb, CBS News, 1963; Robert MacNeil, NBC News, 1963; Marianne Means, Hearst Newspapers; Dan Rather, CBS News, 1963; Bob Schieffer, CBS News; and Sandy Socolow, CBS News, 1963 among others. The film is airing as part of a week of special programming on PBS, November 11-13, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. 

In 1962, Cronkite accepted the offer to anchor the CBS Evening News, but with one condition: to be the Managing Editor as well.  Though the term Managing Editor was not used in television, Cronkite knew he’d be able to determine which stories would be aired and how they would be handled.  Having the final decision rest with him would be key on that fatal day one year later in Dallas as he employed all of his journalistic skills to report the story of a lifetime. 

  In September 1963, Cronkite launched the extended CBS Evening News with an interview with Kennedy.  He was 46, the same age as the President.  Both men were Second World War veterans; Cronkite had been a war correspondent in Europe and Kennedy had commanded a Torpedo patrol-boat in the Pacific; and both men knew how to effectively use the new medium of television.  

Eight weeks later, on November 22, Cronkite and Kennedy would be forever linked in history. Through re-enactments of the CBS newsroom in New York and anecdotal accounts from those in Dallas, the chaos of that day unfolds.  Bennett and Hampton vividly recall the actions of UPI correspondent Merriman Smith, who after hearing gunshots, grabbed the one phone in the press pool car and started dictating to his desk in Dallas, “Three shots were fired at the motorcade!” 

Cronkite had been a distinguished wire-service reporter.  He relied on the wires and knew Smith’s reporting would be accurate.  Though he wanted to be the first to break the news, at that point Smith didn’t know if Kennedy had been hit or even if he was wounded.  Faced with the story of a lifetime, how does Cronkite choose to handle the story?  

From the first reporting of the shooting to his announcement of Kennedy’s death, “Walter turned in his best day and one of the best days the business of news has ever had…and he happened to do it on what was the worst day in modern times,” says Brian Williams.