In the late 20th century, television came into its own as a medium that could bring the US, and the world, together. Not everyone responded in the same way to the following televised events, but these were shared momentS that left a lasting impression on all who lived through them. Where were you when…?
5. The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
January 28, 1986
Crew of the Challenger's Final Flight
73 second into takeoff the Space Shuttle Challenger
disintegrated, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. It was the presence of NASA’s “Teacher in Space” participant, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, that provoked the most media interest. About to become the first teacher in space, “a history teacher making history” as she put it, NASA arranged for many American public schools to view the launch live on NASA TV. Subsequently children were more likely to have witnessed the disaster than adults, with a NY Times
poll stating that 48% of 9- 13 year olds watched the launch at school. The only national public coverage of the launch was emitted live by CNN, and just 535 reporters were accredited to cover the launch. However the news disseminated quickly, with one survey citing that 85% of Americans heard the news within an hour of the incident. The following day 1,467 reporters were at Kennedy Space Center with another 1,040 at Johnson Space Center. The images were run continuously throughout the U.S. and made headlines worldwide.
4. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
August 28th 1962
MLK Delivering His "I Have A Dream" Speech
The Civil Rights movement produced many memorable images but none as definitive as the March on Washington. Never before had 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall, united and determined to state their case for justice. The march was given wide coverage, with national broadcasts emitting speeches and performances live. William Thomas noted in The March on Washington and Television News
that, “Over 500 cameramen, technicians, and correspondents from the major networks were set to cover the event. More cameras would be set up than had filmed the last Presidential inauguration.” Here Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic I Have A Dream
speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s safe to say most of the television audience had never heard a Baptist preacher in full flight, but King was appropriately Lincoln-esque, seized the moment and made history. This momentum was carried through to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the National Voting Rights Act in 1965.
3. Apollo 11 Moon Landing
July 20th 1969
Buzz Aldrin Walks on the Moon, July 20, 1969
Amidst the ongoing Cold War Space Race with the Soviet Union, the U.S. successfully launched Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the Moon. The world was watching on July 16th when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins first took off. As their lunar module landed on the moon’s surface 4 days later, it was armed with a TV camera directly transmitting to an estimated 600 million people around the planet- about 1/5th of the world’s population. Media coverage was substantial, breaking every previous record in viewership until that date. 125 million Americans and 93% of U.S. households tuned in to hear Armstrong’s renowned words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Many networks went for marathon-esque broadcasting, such as with Walter Cronkite, who was on the air for 17 hours. More than 230 hours of satellite footage was sent out through 200 different programs, from shuttle launch, to splashdown in the Pacific on July 24th. After clearing quarantine on August 13th, the three astronauts were honored by parades in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Mexico City. A celebratory state dinner was held in L.A. and attended by Members of Congress, 44 Governors, the Chief Justice, and ambassadors from 83 nations. The astronauts then enjoyed a 45-day “Giant Leap” tour, which brought them to 25 foreign countries where their feat was commemorated. The world was united in celebration like never before to acknowledge what is perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement.
2. The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
November 22nd- 26th, 1963
President Kennedy with his wife and the Texas Governor, minutes before his assassination
Kennedy’s presidency seemed made for television; one of the elements of hope and optimism, ringing in the new American century. Arguably it was TV that made Kennedy president after audiences of his televised debates with Richard Nixon declared him winner by a landslide. The nation and the world were transfixed by the very public shooting of the President while riding through a motorcade in Dallas, the ultimate announcement of his death, the murder of his accused assassin, people filing past his coffin, and his funeral and burial. Much is disputed about Kennedy’s assassination, but at the time, people were gathered around the closest television set as if time stood still. Within 3 hours of Kennedy being shot until November 26th, every TV station canceled their commercial broadcasting to bring around-the clock news coverage. Few would have remembered the last Presidential assassination of William McKinley in 1901, and none would have experienced it with such immediacy and drama. This was previously uncharted territory.
1. Terrorists destroy the World Trade Center, attack the Pentagon and attempt a third attack on Washington D.C.
September 11th 2001
NYC Firefighter Looks At What Remains of the South Tower
In the midst of the morning breakfast newscasts, the first plane hit the North Tower. Many NY camera crews were already on the beat as a result of the mayoral primary election, and helicopters out to deliver the morning traffic rush hour reports. Within 2 minutes of the plane hitting the tower, the first live pictures were broadcast. It spread across the network, cable and international news outlets like wildfire. The rest is history, as the event unfolded before our disbelieving eyes. Immediate confusion arose, and because of the continuous feed of the burning North Tower, many witnessed the impact of the second plane into the South Tower live. Soon the words “terrorism” and “hijacking” began popping up in reports, and the uninterrupted live images and news reports chronicled all the morning’s events; the subsequent passenger jets flown into the Pentagon and downed in Pennsylvania; people jumping from the buildings; the collapse of both towers; a cloud of smoke consuming the streets of Manhattan and people running for their lives. After the events immediately unfolded on television screens throughout the morning, the smoke cleared and the magnitude of what had occurred, and tremendous loss of life, began to sink in. Soon the images across TV screens were of New Yorkers covered head-to-toe in dust and debris, and family and friends holding photographs of loved ones who were missing. TV coverage repeated the terrifying images, while also offering therapeutic advice like how to talk to your children about the events, and how to deal with stress. By then it was about picking up the pieces. Victims, their relatives and survivors were profiled, while continuous information about blood drives, charities and telethons called people to help. After 72 continuous hours of nonstop news coverage, American television returned to regular programming on September 14th, but that too was infused with issues and topics related to the attacks.