Alumnus contributes to documentary about Kennedy assassination news coverage

A Penn State alumnus will be included in a documentary that looks back on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the news coverage that followed.

Ronald Bonn, a 1952 journalism graduate, was a young reporter for CBS News in New York City when he was alerted by the United Press International wire that Kennedy had been shot on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. Fifty years later, Bonn is one of a handful of CBS personnel who are alive and able to talk about their experiences and media coverage related to the assassination.

Bonn’s memories will be part of “JFK: One PM Central Standard Time,” which airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, on PBS. The hour-long program is part of three days of PBS programming scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

“JFK: One PM Central Standard Time” closely examines news coverage from the moment Kennedy was shot until CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s emotional pronouncement of his death at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.

The special tells the riveting story of the reporting from Dallas and the CBS Newsroom in New York. It features rarely seen archives of Kennedy, Cronkite and moving memories from the producers, writers and reporters who were there that day. Along with Bonn, that group includes, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Marvin Kalb and Marianne Means. The special is narrated by George Clooney and features an interview with President Bill Clinton.

“That was perhaps the moment that modern television was born,” Bonn said. “We were still learning how to disseminate news, when all of a sudden, the story of the 20th century descends on us. We grew up years in four days.”

The significance of the story meant that journalists had a pressing responsibility to deliver accurate news to viewers across the United States. The urgency of the story meant that there was no time for grieving among the newsroom staff.

“I put it in a side compartment of my brain, and thought I’ll cry tomorrow,” Bonn said. “We had a job to do. I will never forget the spirit of everyone being at the top of their game.”

Coverage of the assassination and related events continued uninterrupted for days -- long before the days of 24-hour news channels.

“We began our broadcast with a series of bulletin cut-ins -- Cronkite’s voice over a CBS News Bulletin slide, then returning to the afternoon soap opera. But once we took the air on television, Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, we stayed on continuously for four days and three nights, into Monday afternoon,” Bonn said. “CBS President William S. Paley decided that the network would not return to regular programming, or even run commercials, throughout our coverage, which continued through the funeral cortège on Monday.”

Just two months prior to the assassination, television news segments had shifted from being 15 minutes long to being a half hour. The 15-minute extension altered what had been the routine of daily news production. Now, a network could not simply transmit the news, but rather it had to find depth and gather robust stories. Coverage of a presidential assassination further spurred the age of television news.

Bonn worked for CBS News for 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, eventually serving as the senior producer of the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” He later taught at the University of San Diego from 2001 to 2012. He lives in San Diego with his wife, June. They have been married 51 years.

Last Updated November 07, 2013