At 2:27 p.m. on March 30, 1981, Secret Service agents were escorting President Ronald Reagan and White House staffers from a speech before the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton Hotel. About 100 people waited by the side entrance of the hotel to see the president as he walked to his limousine, which was parked about 12 feet away on T Street NW. Wearing a blue suit, Reagan smiled and waved, pausing for a split second as a reporter, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, called his name from a roped-off press area. From that same area, John W. Hinckley fired six shots. Jerry Parr, head of the president’s Secret Service detail, shoved a surprised Reagan into the limousine.
And with that, the assassination attempt on a sitting president, less than a decade after two failed attempts on Gerald Ford and 18 years after Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy, was over. But how the news spread, with misinformation seeding chaos here and abroad, presented a cautionary tale for the media, one it still struggles with today.
About 15 minutes after Hinckley fired, Frank Reynolds, the anchor of ABC News, interrupted the soap opera “One Life to Live” with breaking news.
“The president was not hit,” Reynolds emphasized. By 3 p.m., NBC and CBS joined ABC in running videotape of the shooting, as did the nascent CNN, which had launched less than a year earlier. Without advanced knowledge of the images onscreen, anchors first screened footage with their viewers. Together, news authorities and the public watched men fall to the ground as the limo whisked Reagan away to George Washington University hospital. They heard yelling. They saw agents and officers pull guns, tackle the shooter, tend to the fallen, and herd the shooter into a police car.
On ABC, Reynolds narrated the news event as he struggled to understand what was happening:
“They’re grabbing the assailant it seems here.”
“There are 1,2,3 persons on the ground.”
“Yes, [the shooter] appears to be blonde.
On CNN, Bernard Shaw had a one-sided telephone conversation with White House correspondent Bob Berkowitz, who was near the scene at the hotel. Between long pauses and uncomfortable glances at the camera, Shaw shared what he knew with Berkowitz.
“I’ve just been told in my [opposite] ear that Jim Brady is still on the ground,” Shaw relayed to Berkowitz. He hung up and looked at the camera. “That’s just how confused it is,” he said.
“We cannot say it too many times, the President of the United States is okay,” repeated Shaw, citing a White House statement as producers off camera pushed paper after paper onto his desk.
“And now I’m told,” Shaw said after touching his left ear, “The President sustained a bump while he was being pushed into the car.”
Shortly before 3:17 PM, Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader, interrupted a budget debate on the floor. “May I take this opportunity to advise the Senate that I have been advised that the President of the United States was the target of a shot fired at him a few moments ago,” said Baker. “He was not hit.”
At the White House, most top officials knew the same as Americans at home: the contents of videotapes that anchors dissected on a steady loop of slow motion and freeze frames. “I just saw on television what you saw and it sounds serious,” said Secretary of State Alexander Haig during a later press conference.
At the hospital, journalists gathered in a makeshift press quarters and filed copy through pay phones. Based on what their teams could ascertain and infer from eyewitnesses, anchors relayed some correct facts: Press Secretary James Brady was the man lying face down on the pavement, sustaining a shot to the head; a second wounded man was Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy; a third was police officer Tom Delahanty; the shooter was a troubled Colorado man named John W. Hinckley; the president had walked himself into the hospital.
Monitoring one another’s broadcasts, anchors repeated one solid refrain: “The president was not hit.”
About an hour after the first report broke, Frank Reynolds sat next to
ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson, who had since traveled the short distance from the Hilton to the news studio, and reviewed through notes on camera. Off camera, someone handed him a yellow slip of paper. “He was wounded!” Reynolds stated emphatically. Putting his hand to his head, he said, “My God!” and then, “The President was hit! The typed information that I have is that he’s okay.” He turned to someone off camera. “Speak up!”
“All of this that we’ve been telling you is incorrect,” said Reynolds, shifting his gaze back and forth. “We must redraw this tragedy in different terms.”
Back at the hospital, reporters booed doctors on live television for giving exclusives to other news outlets. Senators huddled in front of a television in a cloakroom as television news reports jumped from Reagan having only been grazed to being in surgery for hours to undergoing open-heart surgery.
Within two hours of the assassination attempt, Haig told the assembled press that a bullet had pierced the president’s left lung and that high-ranking officials were convening in the White House Situation Room.
“Who is making the decisions of the government?” a reporter asked.
“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State in that order,” answered Haig. As the president was in the hospital and Vice President George Bush on a plane, Haig famously stated, “I am in control here, in the White House.”
Dan Rather, in his first major event as anchor for CBS News, noted on air that the Secretary of State was fifth in line to succession (after the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate), not third. Some might look at Haig’s delivery “somewhat patronizingly,” said Rather, but “anyone could be forgiven today in the chaos of the moment.”
Shortly thereafter, at 5:10 p.m., Rather told the nation that James Brady had died. A White House spokesman responded quickly, saying the report was false.
“There is some confusion,” said Rather. Brady would be partially paralyzed from the shot to his head for the rest of his life.
By the end of the evening, the public learned that Hinckley was in custody and had acted alone. It learned that a bullet had pierced the president’s left lung, that it had been removed, and that he was already joking with the doctors and his wife. It learned that Brady, while alive, remained in critical condition.
The next day, the print press indicted broadcast journalism for misleading the American people. “Whether or not the surplus of misinformation doled out yesterday is an inevitable byproduct of an information-addicted, ready-access environment remains to be discussed in future days and weeks,” wrote Tom Shales in The Washington Post. “The news organizations of the three major networks are staffed and organized so that no effective system exists during coverage of a crisis of global sport to screen out rumor, gossip, hysterical tale-telling, hearsay and tongue-wagging.”
In a nationally syndicated column, journalist Nicholas Von Hoffman wrote, “[The anchors] failed themselves, they failed journalism and they failed the country when the crisis came.”
But they turned the president into a hero. Richard S. Beale, a pollster and speechwriting consultant for the Reagan White House, told the New York Times magazine that the shooting endeared the President to the public. “If the endearing thesis is right,” said Beal, “his personal attributes might never have come across without the assassination attempt.”
Reagan himself had only been in office for 70 days. While his approval ratings were in the mid-50s, a crisis in El Salvador involving U.S. ground troops was already putting a strain on his administration. But as Americans waited to hear what had happened during the afternoon of March 30, 1981, the only objective truth that they had seen during these hours of uncertainty and rumor was the footage of President Reagan standing, stoic, smiling and waving to onlookers before getting shot in the lung.
Networks in 1981 faulted “new ‘instant’ reporting” expectations for the dissemination of misinformation, writes cultural sociologist Elizabeth Butler Breese in an essay published in The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered. Thirty-five years ago, networks allowed advancements in satellite technology and the first continuous cable news channel (CNN) to push them into premature reports. Breese draws parallels between the coverage of the 1981 assassination attempt to that following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, when NPR incorrectly reported her death on air and over Twitter, sending the headline to its (then) two million followers. Taking note of the NPR tweet, CNN, the New York Times, and Fox News carried the story.
Two years later following the Boston marathon bombings, faulty reporting led a host of sources – including CNN, the AP, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CBS, NBC and the LA Times-- to “broadcast” untruths about investigative finds and persons of interest. Not wanting a public distracted with red herrings, the FBI intervened with a statement that cautioned the media to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.” After coverage of a 2013 mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., was plagued by similar misreporting, the public radio program “On the Media” published a “Breaking News Consumer Handbook,” that has since become a guideline for how to report in the age of Twitter.
Today’s journalists channel information through far more portals than did the anchors and airwaves of 1981. Now, as then, after a tragedy, viewers (or Facebook and Twitter users) seek a logical thread in “the chaos of the moment,” to use Dan Rather’s words. So much so that the fastest “breaking” headline often forms public opinion. As the nation saw more than 35 years ago, sometimes the truth is just as dramatic as the rumor.