Robert MacNeil Reflects on Reporting the JFK Assassination

November 06, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Journalist Robert MacNeil tells his firsthand account of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX.

“There were known to be in Texas, and particularly in Dallas, a lot of people hostile to Kennedy…so the authorities were expecting something and [journalists] were expecting something. I wasn’t consciously expecting anything like what…happened.”
-Robert MacNeil

On November 22, 1963, Robert MacNeil was a reporter for NBC News travelling on the press bus following President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade through downtown Dallas. But in a split second, everything changed. Shots rang out, and MacNeil became the only reporter who left the bus to investigate.

MacNeil said he had dozed off on the bus on the way into town and remembers dreaming about what he would do if someone shot at the president. When he awoke, he dismissed the daydream, and began making notes about the trip. Moments later he heard what he knew were gunshots and ordered the bus driver to stop and let him off.

“…I’d been years as a foreign correspondent covering stuff where there was violence, there was action and if you’re working for television you’ve got to get it, you’ve got to get the picture. And the closer you are the better the television is. So I was used to running towards something that was happening,” he said.

MacNeil ran across the now infamous grassy knoll after a group of police officers, but when they arrived at an empty set of railroad tracks with no gunman  in sight, he decided his priority should be to find a phone to call in the unfolding events to NBC.  While entering the Texas Book Depository to look for a phone, he encountered a young man who is now believed to have been assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

“It’s titillating, but it really doesn’t mean very much,” MacNeil said of the possibility. “What means more to me [is] why didn’t I stop and talk to the people who I passed lying on the ground when I ran up the grassy knoll, who, a few minutes later, gave incredible eyewitness accounts to reporter who had the sense to ask them. I was so fixated on following the police up the grassy knoll that I didn’t stop. Why were the police running up there is the question. Because they thought they heard something and Dallas police are probably as experienced as anybody at interpreting echoes of gunshot off buildings.”

Web Extra: Host Raf Pi Roman asks journalist Robert MacNeil whether or not the Kennedy assassination fundamentally changed the United States.

It was only upon leaving the depository after filing his story that he learned that the president had been shot. He hitched a ride to Parkland hospital and arrived before all of the other journalists on the press bus, which had continued on to the president’s scheduled stop at a luncheon. MacNeil said that the full impact of the day’s events didn’t hit him until days later, when he was back at the grassy knoll, reporting on the president’s funeral.

Of following generations who are too young to remember the assassination, MacNeil said, “We can’t expect them to be as shocked as we are because there have been plenty of shocking things in their lives…They know that violence is loose in this country, the Newtown massacre and all the other shootings that happen…It’s not new to them.”

MacNeil co-anchored the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, the nation’s first full hour of evening news, with Jim Lehrer until retiring in 1995.

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