December 3, 2010
Dec. 9, 1980, edition of the New York Post. (Newseum collection)

Dec. 9, 1980, edition of the New York Post. (Newseum collection)

30 Years Ago in News History: The Death of John Lennon

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1980, millions of TV viewers were watching the New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins on ABC’s Monday Night Football when sportscaster Howard Cosell delivered shocking news from the broadcast booth.

In his trademark dramatic style of announcing, Cosell related the “unspeakable tragedy” that ABC had just confirmed: Former Beatle John Lennon had been rushed to a hospital after being shot outside his New York apartment building and was, Cosell intoned, “dead on arrival.”

Monday Night Football analyst John Madden later said, “If they were watching the game now and that happened, they’d get the news from 100 other places as well.”

But in 1980, there was no Internet, and the all-news network CNN, which had been launched only six months earlier, had not yet begun to challenge the broadcast networks. Although ABC was the first to reach a large audience with the news that Lennon had died, CNN, with its limited viewership, was the first national TV network to air news of the shooting, although Lennon’s death had not been confirmed at the time. The Associated Press also issued a bulletin reporting the shooting of a man “tentatively identified” as Lennon.

But ABC had an inside source. Alan Weiss, a producer at WABC-TV in New York, had been injured in a motorcycle accident and was waiting in the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital when Lennon was brought in. He used a hospital phone to call his station’s assignment editor, who confirmed Weiss’s tip and relayed the news to the network, who passed it along to Cosell.

After Cosell’s announcement, word spread quickly. Radio and TV stations broke into their programming to announce the news. Late-night talk-show host Johnny Carson’s comedy sketch was abruptly interrupted by a voice-over with a 30-second special bulletin from NBC News.

Cosell announced that a special edition of “Nightline” with more information on Lennon’s death would air 30 minutes after the end of the football game. Those who wanted to learn more about the life and death of the former Beatle had to turn to the radio or wait for the next day’s newspapers.

Thirty years after his death, Lennon continues to rank as one of the greatest rock musicians of all time, and the Beatles are as popular as ever. The news coverage of the recent announcement that the Beatles' catalog would be available on Apple’s iTunes is a testament to the lasting influence of the Fab Four.

Newspaper front pages from Dec. 9, 1980, reporting the death of John Lennon are featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery. Excerpts from TV news coverage of the Beatles’ Feb. 7, 1964, arrival in America can be seen in the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery.

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