Jacobson’s JFK regret: ‘I wish I had refused’

Walter Jacobson

Walter Jacobson

On the early afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, Walter Jacobson, a 26-year-old reporter and news writer for WBBM-Channel 2, was having lunch at the Chicago Press Club in the Hotel St. Clair when his conversation with executive producer Dick Goldberg was interrupted by news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.

Almost at once, Jacobson, Goldberg and the 25 or 30 other reporters, producers and writers in the room got up and left.

The same CBS-owned station that had made history three years earlier as the site of the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate was mobilizing to cover reaction to the president’s assassination. After running back the two blocks to the studios on McClurg Court, Jacobson was given his assignment: Take a camera crew to the Chicago Theatre on State Street.

Walter Jacobson (1963)

Walter Jacobson (1963)

“Roll it on people coming out. They’ve been in the dark for the past three hours watching a movie. They’ll have no idea the president’s been shot. Tell them what happened, and ask how they feel about it,” the veteran Chicago anchorman recalled in his 2012 autobiography, Walter’s Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News.

“What I got was shock and tears. A lot of it. Telling someone, cold and out of the blue, that the president of the United States has been shot in the head and is dead, then demanding to know ‘How do you feel about it?’ That’s not journalism. It’s National Enquirer, a paparazzi attack. It’s intrusion.

“Looking back, I wish I had refused to be that intrusive, that grotesquely insensitive. But back then, it didn’t occur to me to refuse. I was a second-string reporter competing for the starting lineup, and the story was huge. I didn’t think about what it would be like on the other side of the microphone, how much I’d want to smash it, or at least turn away from it in disgust, and to give a finger to the cameraman.”

One of the few working newsmen that day still active in Chicago journalism, Jacobson, 76, delivers weekly commentaries on WLS AM 890.