Fiction, Propaganda and the Media
In films, TV shows, novels, non-fiction books, and newspapers, the JFK assassination has rarely been portrayed objectively and critically. The news media has been especially one-sided for more than half a century.
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The raison d’être of the Warren Report was to enable an uncritical news media to “convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin” (HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.472). The unreliability of much of the evidence in the case, as well as an institutional need to impose one particular interpretation of the evidence, has allowed the JFK assassination to remain the subject of fiction and propaganda.
Fiction and Drama
Don DeLillo, Libra (available from Amazon), from one of the finest literary stylists around, has a dénouement that comes as a surprise, not least for the main character.
Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale (available from Amazon), is a very long fictionalised biography of Lee Oswald. It is based on some dubious sources, so the art is better than the science.
Stephen King, 11.22.63 (published as 11/22/63 in the US), uses an established fictional device by sending its invented hero, Jake Epping, back in time to interact with a real historical event. King’s novel is almost as long as Mailer’s, but can probably be read in half the time.
Oliver Stone, director, JFK (Warner Brothers, 1991; available from Amazon), was probably the pivotal factor in the rejuvenation of public interest in the assassination, and in the consequent governmental activity that resulted in the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. Although very slick and professionally made, the film attracted a wide range of criticism:
- Those with a stake in promoting the lone–nut interpretation seized on the film’s reliance upon questionable sources and the way it obscured the distinction between contemporary footage and reconstructions.
- More knowledgeable audiences questioned the film’s use of a relatively trivial aspect of the case, the investigation by Jim Garrison, as the main structural device. Given the economics of the mass media and popular film–making, however, a cliché Hollywood storyline was probably the only practical way to get critical information onto a large number of screens.
- In the eyes of some viewers, the director made a tactical error in placing too much dramatic weight on one speculative theory about the nature of the conspiracy, and too little on the fact of Oswald’s innocence. This allowed the print and broadcast media to misrepresent the issue as a simple choice between Stone’s theory and the lone–nut theory.
The Media Fight Back
The notion that Lee Harvey Oswald had anything to do with the assassination is very much a minority point of view among those with any appreciable knowledge of the subject. It is still, however, the default position in newspaper and television coverage.
Media institutions surely recognise that any serious questioning of the official lone–nut explanation is an attack on the institutions which devised and originally promoted that explanation. Despite its deficiencies, the film JFK was such an attack.
The press campaign against JFK began even before filming had finished, when a draft version of the script was obtained in dubious circumstances. The most pertinent and revealing criticism was aimed not at the film itself but at the Hollywood system for its failure on this occasion to keep unwelcome ideas hidden. For a brief overview of the print media’s attitude to JFK, see two articles by writers from opposite ends of the political spectrum:
- Sam Smith, ‘Why They Hate Oliver Stone,’ Progressive Review, February 1992;
- Murray Rothbard, ‘The JFK Flap,’ The Rockwell–Rothbard Report, May 1992.
Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Praise and Criticism
With the Warren Report widely recognised to be the discredited product of a dishonest process, it was necessary to find a new holy book to which the media priesthood could defer. Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (Random House, 1993; ISBN 0–4000–3462–0) filled the gap. The book was heavily promoted, and achieved an enormous amount of uncritical coverage. Reviews were generally entrusted to those who could be relied on not to delve too far into the subject.
As with the Warren Report, Case Closed received a serious beating from those with the motivation to look under the surface. For example:
- Case Closed or Posner Exposed? offers a wide range of critical reviews. Peter Dale Scott’s review sums it up: “Posner often transmits without evaluation official statements that are now known to be false, or chooses discredited but compliant witnesses who have already disowned earlier helpful stories that have been disproven. He even revives a wild allegation which the Warren Commission rejected, and reverses testimony to suggest its opposite.”
- David Wrone, ‘Review of Gerald Posner, Case Closed’, Journal of Southern History, 6 (February 1995), pp.186–88. See also Wrone’s The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, in which he offers more criticism of Case Closed and describes it, not without reason, as “one of the most error–ridden works ever published on the assassination.” (p.117)
- John Newman, ‘Case Closed Doesn’t Close the Oswald File’, Baltimore Sun, 22 September 1993, was one of the few critical reviews to appear in the corporate media.
- Harold Weisberg, Case Open: The Omissions, Distortions and Falsehoods of Case Closed (Carroll and Graf, 1994; ISBN 0–7867–0098–X). Weisberg provided Gerald Posner with access to his huge collection of JFK assassination files. He goes into details about Posner’s methods, and suggests that Case Closed was not entirely Posner’s own work. Although Weisberg’s book is informative, his prose style is often clumsy and occasionally almost unreadable. For example: “Posner’s parenthetical explanation of hardened jackets on military ammunition, not the only one he gives, those he does give not being consistent either with each other or with the provisions of that Geneva international agreement on this that he does not mention, if he knows about it, that it is to ‘increase its penetration’ is consistent with the need of Posner’s fabrication.” (pp.150–1) Weisberg made a huge contribution to research on the JFK assassination, but the size of his audience was severely limited by the lack of editorial restraint over his writing style. An expanded version of Case Open, entitled Hoax, is available online in PDF at the Harold Weisberg archive at Hood College, along with Weisberg’s 1000–page unpublished and probably unpublishable manuscript, Inside the Assassination Industry, which criticises Posner along with several other well–known writers on the assassination, including Mark Lane, Harrison Livingstone and David Lifton.
- Martin Cannon, ‘Compromised Reporting’, Lobster, 28 (December 1994), discusses Posner’s ethics, accusing him of misquoting witnesses and even inventing interviews.
The final nail in the coffin of Gerald Posner’s credibility was probably the repeated accusations of plagiarism made against him. See, for example, ‘Posner Plagiarizes Again,’ Miami New Times and ‘More Posner Plagiarism,’ Slate.
Rehabilitating the Lone Nut Theory
Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History (W.W. Norton, 2007; ISBN 0–393–04525–0), acknowledged some of the problems with Posner’s book, and endeavoured to replace it as the definitive lone–nut account. One reviewer, Gary Aguilar, whom Bugliosi consulted when writing his book, calls Reclaiming History “an historic and important contribution. It is valuable … as a reference for the myriad facts in the case and for debunking some of the pro–conspiracy codswallop that has not elsewhere already been debunked.” But Aguilar is less enthusiastic about Bugliosi’s “arrogant condescension … [his] conclusions–driven narrative … his errors of fact and interpretation and … his snarky, self–congratulatory tone.”
Reclaiming History was let down also by its length: it comprises one printed volume of 1500 pages and a CD–ROM containing a further 1000 pages. Unsurprisingly, it appears to have sold poorly, and is currently out of print. Part of the book has since been published as Four Days in November (ISBN 0–393–33215–2; also available as an ebook). There is a long and extremely informative review of Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History by James DiEugenio that has occasionally appeared on the www.ctka.net site, and a more concise one by Gaeton Fonzi.
Bonar Menninger, Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK (St. Martin’s Press, 1992; ISBN 0–312–08074–3; available in abridged form as an audio book), offers the most plausible non–conspiratorial account of the assassination. Menninger is a journalist rather than a researcher. He reports the theory of a ballistics expert, Howard Donahue, that President Kennedy was killed accidentally by a Secret Service agent.
Donahue seized on the fact that Kennedy’s head wound was caused by a soft–nosed bullet, a type designed to break into fragments on impact, while the non–fatal wounds were caused by metal–jacketed bullets, which were designed to remain intact on impact. All of the bullet shells discovered on the sixth floor were part of the same batch, and must have contained the same type of bullet, so the fatal shot must have come from a different source. Donahue discovered a photograph, taken a few seconds after the assassination, which shows an automatic rifle being held aloft by one of the Secret Service agents in the car behind Kennedy. That type of rifle was able to fire the correct type of bullet. Ergo, as Menninger would put it, the agent shot Kennedy.
The theory fails for many reasons, not least that:
- of the dozens of nearby witnesses, not one saw or heard the agent fire his gun;
- and, more conclusively, the home movie by Charles Bronson shows that the agent’s gun did not have unobstructed access to Kennedy at the moment of the fatal shot.
The Secret Service agent, George Hickey, applied to sue Menninger and the book’s publishers for libel, claiming that publication went ahead even though Menninger, Donahue and their publisher had been shown the Bronson film and were aware that it invalidated their theory. Hickey was reported to have settled for a payment out of court.
Although the publishers were no doubt motivated more by the prospect of sales than by a concern with accuracy, it is the behaviour of the media that is noteworthy. As with Case Closed and Reclaiming History, reviews of Mortal Error were mostly entrusted to writers whose knowledge of the case was so weak that they were not aware that Charles Bronson’s film contradicted the whole premise of the book.
The Future of the Lone–Assassin Theory
To win acceptance by the media in 1964, the Warren Report only needed to clear a very low hurdle. Three decades later, the lone–nut baton had been handed to Case Closed. That book passed the same easy test, but is now too badly hamstrung to do so again.
In 2001, Rex Bradford summed up the attitude of the media nicely:
A thought experiment may be helpful at this point. Imagine that it is 1963, the height of the Cold War, but it is not Kennedy who has been killed. It is Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, recently humiliated by the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In this thought experiment, it is Khrushchev, not Kennedy, who received a military autopsy whose results ran directly counter to the reports of the civilian doctors who first treated him. Imagine that later one of the autopsy doctors admitted that a Soviet general ran the autopsy, and that this doctor said he was ordered not to track the path of a bullet; that crucial autopsy photographs known to be taken went missing; that trained medical witnesses disputed what was shown in those that remained; that the official autopsy camera went missing after an investigation failed to match it to the photographs.
Imagine it was Russia where the security services destroyed evidence linking themselves with the purported killer, who was declared to be a lone “rabid capitalist,” but who seemed to be surrounded for the last year of his life by KGB operatives; that secret evidence finally revealed that the purported killer had been impersonated in a supposed phone conversation with CIA agents.
But Khrushchev’s successor, without revealing the impersonation, had led those investigating the crime to think that the alleged assassin had indeed made these disturbing calls, and there might be nuclear war with America if this got out.
And so on. Take the single bullet theory, the killing of the alleged assassin while in police custody, and all the rest of the JFK assassination story, including the fact that the murder was followed by a major expansion of a war, a war that secret documents years later showed Khrushchev had ordered be wound down.
Everyone in the U.S., from the New York Times to the man on the street, would have a field day with this scenario. It would be completely obvious to everyone that Khrushchev was killed by his own political enemies with the help of the KGB, for political reasons. It would be obvious that the “story” of the lone capitalist was just that, a story, propped up by phoney “evidence” that would be completely disbelieved. You wouldn’t need 1/10th of the evidence pointing toward a high–level conspiracy that is present in the JFK assassination to convince just about anybody of this.
… What is fundamentally different between this thought experiment and the reality of the Kennedy assassination is not the basic facts — it is a matter of belief systems. For a great many people, it is simply not possible that an assassination of a President would be carried out by powerful domestic political figures, even though they would be perfectly willing to believe it of the Soviets or almost any other country’s leaders. Even imagining that high U.S. officials would lie and engage in cover–up in such a matter is unthinkable to many, and certainly unspeakable in the nation’s “responsible” media.
The print and broadcast media’s overwhelmingly one–sided depiction of the Kennedy assassination has reflected nothing more sinister than its standard identification with established power. Five decades after the event, however, the killing of President Kennedy is perhaps no longer considered to be part of modern history, and no longer subject to all the consequent restrictions on expression. It will be interesting to see how the media cope with the fiftieth anniversary in 2013.
Media Coverage of the JFK Assassination
The corporate media’s largely uncritical treatment of the Kennedy assassination has attracted its own rather more critical treatment:
- Jerry Policoff, ‘Political Assassinations and the New York Times’, traces the newspaper’s undistinguished coverage of the assassination.
- Barbie Zelizer, Covering the Body: the Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1992; ISBN 0–226–97971–7).
- The Media and the Kennedy Assassination: the Social Construction of Reality, a Ph.D. dissertation by Ross Ralston, is discussed here, a location which links to a download in PDF format.
Update: 22 November 2013
So much for the idea that by 2013 the media would feel able to treat the JFK assassination objectively, as an uncontroversial historical event rather than one that threatens to undermine popular tolerance for established institutions. With a handful of exceptions, the newspaper and television coverage was as dismally uncritical on the fiftieth anniversary as on any previous anniversary.
More than one TV programme attempted to make the single–bullet theory work, using traditional, fraudulent means: shifting Kennedy’s back wound up to the level of his shirt collar, or tipping his body forward, or both. Even the ludicrous ‘Secret Service agent did it by accident’ theory, which had been debunked twenty years earlier, was put forward as a credible explanation. For a comprehensive critical account of the fiftieth anniversary coverage, see http://www.patspeer.com/the-onslaught.
From the point of view of the mass media, the last half a century of research may as well not have existed. Perhaps things will have improved by 22 November 2063.
By the Same Author
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