Why is the Media Coverage of the JFK Assassination So Bad?
It is a common observation that anyone with specialist knowledge of a topic will spot errors in almost any news report which deals with that topic. Journalists without specialist knowledge will often get quite basic facts wrong.
Coverage of the JFK assassination, however, is different. In addition to making simple errors of fact, newspaper and television accounts of this contentious topic consistently distort the subject by favouring one interpretation over others.
Getting a few basic facts wrong is usually the result of sloppiness and haste: simple human error. The consistent distortion of a topic, on the other hand, surely has more fundamental, institutional causes.
Newspapers, TV and the JFK Assassination
The Warren Commission and the Media
The close relationship between the corporate media and the political establishment in Washington was evident very soon after the assassination. President Johnson took a phone call from Joe Alsop, a syndicated newspaper columnist, on the morning of President Kennedy’s funeral, in which Alsop offered what he called “public relations advice” about the best way to convince the general public of the lone–nut interpretation. That interpretation had already been decided upon in discussions among the Washington elite, according to a memo written by the acting Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to Bill Moyers, who at the time was an assistant to President Johnson and who later became a broadcaster.
The Warren Commission’s verdict, that Lee Harvey Oswald alone was guilty of the assassination, was in place several days before the Commission itself was established. Thanks to the efforts of researchers, previously secret documents have exposed the workings of the Warren Commission and revealed the amount of hammering that was required to fit the square peg of the evidence into the round hole of the conclusion.
The Commission itself, and its political sponsors, are not entirely to blame for the way in which it was obliged to act; the cover–up was the necessary consequence of the way in which the assassination occurred. The media, however, has very rarely referred to the Commission as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. Even now, the Commission is usually portrayed as an honest, objective enquiry that tried its best to find out the truth of the assassination.
Jim Garrison and the New Orleans Investigation
In 1967 the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, began the first, and perhaps the only, official investigation that genuinely attempted to discover how and why President Kennedy was assassinated. It resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of a local businessman, Clay Shaw.
New Orleans was where Lee Harvey Oswald had associated with both pro–Castro and anti–Castro elements during the summer of 1963. Garrison possessed evidence that Oswald and Shaw had known each other and had conspired in the assassination. His investigation was hindered by a combination of governmental and media institutions.
CBS countered Garrison’s claims of a conspiracy by putting out a four–part defence of the lone–nut hypothesis. The programme’s flaws are discussed in:
- Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro–Study of the Kennedy Assassination, Bernard Geis Associates, 1967, pp.292–5.
- Robert Henelly and Jerry Policoff, ‘JFK: How the Media Assassinated the Real Story’.
CBS in fact broadcast three defences of the lone–nut hypothesis:
One could cogently argue that, from 1963–75, no other broadcast outlet did more to prop up the Warren Commission farce than did CBS. They prepared three news specials in that time period to support the Commission. These all came at crucial times in that time period. The first one was in 1964 to accompany the release of the Warren Report. The second was in 1967 to calm a public that was becoming anxious about what Jim Garrison was doing in New Orleans. The third was in 1975 at the time of the Church Committee exposure of the crimes of the CIA and FBI, and the Schweiker–Hart subcommittee report on the failure of those two agencies to properly relay information to the Commission.
(James DiEugenio, ‘Elegy for Roger Feinman’)
Perhaps the most serious attack on Garrison by the US media was an NBC television show which alleged that his staff had attempted to bribe witnesses. Playboy magazine provided one of the few exceptions to the hostile media coverage with a sympathetic interview with Jim Garrison.
The Media and Oliver Stone’s JFK
The treatment of Garrison by the media was referred to in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK. Ironically, JFK suffered at least as badly from the same type of misrepresentation, including the unfounded claim that the film contained serious factual errors.
Michael Parenti points out the unprecedented extent of the opposition to JFK:
As far as I know, JFK is the only movie in film history that was attacked, six months before it was released, in just about every major broadcast and print outlet.
(Michael Parenti, ‘The JFK Assassination: Defending the Gangster State’ [emphasis in the original])
Edward Herman, who analysed the role of the media with Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, identified the danger posed by JFK and its director:
JFK also stresses the coverup of the JFK assassination by government and media in tandem. He [Oliver Stone] provides numerous pieces of evidence of the destruction and misrepresentation of data, failures and perversion of police–intelligence procedure, and media connivance in closing down the inquiry prematurely, from the moment Kennedy was shot to JFK. The Zapruder film, for example, was bought by Time–Life, and then kept out of the public domain for many years. The media’s response to Stone’s film follows a long tradition of protecting a ‘historical lie’ that they have failed to investigate critically since November 22, 1963.
Stone’s menace runs deeper. If not discredited now, he might some day look with a similarly jaundiced eye at the Iran–Contra Report, hearings and media treatment; or, even more frightening, he might examine the great Persian Gulf war as possibly related to the political interests of George Bush and the threatened budget of the MIC (which had been looking frantically for a ‘mission’), instead of as a triumph of virtue against naked aggression. That would never do.
(Edward Herman, ‘JFK’, Z Magazine, February 1992)
The eminent film critic, Roger Ebert, reviewed JFK favourably. He went on to identify one cause of the media’s attacks on the film:
If it has done nothing else, JFK has acheived the remarkable feat of making the op–ed people livid with anger — greater anger, apparently, than was generated by Watergate, or Irangate, or the vast looming specter of Vietnam, or such issues as gun control. … Why are these guys so worked up? There is one obvious reason …
If Stone is right, then their own reporting on the Kennedy assassination is discredited. They got the story wrong. They have spent the last thirty years tacitly acting as if there were no substantial stories still to be generated by the Kennedy assassination. What are they going to do now? Thank Stone for directing their attention back to some of the bothersome questions in the case?
(Roger Ebert, ‘Pundits Go Astray Taking Aim at JFK’, Universal Press Syndicate, 15 January 1992)
In general, Hollywood studios do not make subversive films, and those subversive films that do get made are given little or no publicity by the media. JFK was an exception to both rules. In this case, the commercial interests of Warner Brothers, and by extension the commercial interests of all the other studios which profited by employing the film’s participants, over–rode obvious class interests.
The studio’s business decision appears to have been justified; according to various sources (see here and here), the film cost around $40 million to make, and earned over $200 million in box–office receipts.
JFK involved many Hollywood stars, several of whom were identified with the film industry’s main publicity device: Oliver Stone, for example, had won three Oscars, and Kevin Costner received two Oscars for Dances With Wolves just one year before JFK was released. Although the commercial interests of the film industry ensured that the film could not be ignored, the ideological interests of the media demanded that the film’s message be opposed.
The Media and the 50th Anniversary
Pat Speer undertook the unpleasant task of reviewing much of the media’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination; see http://www.patspeer.com/the-onslaught. As usual, the coverage overwhelmingly favoured the lone–nut hypothesis.
A PBS Nova TV documentary, Cold Case JFK, attempted to revive the single–bullet theory by moving JFK’s back wound up to the level of his collar. Josiah Thompson, one of the participants, was unimpressed by the programme’s treatment of the evidence: “It was very reminiscent of what CBS News did in defending the Warren Commission in 1968 and successive years … it was biased and cooked at the beginning … I got handled by Nova.”
The station’s choice of advisors makes it clear that the programme’s purpose was not to provide an objective account of a controversial subject, but merely to promote an officially sanctioned interpretation. Among the credits on the programme’s web page are the words: “Historical Consultants: John McAdams, Gerald Posner”. Of the two ‘historical consultants’, the former runs a partisan lone–nut website, and the latter is the author of Case Closed, which was described by a genuine historian, David Wrone, as “one of the most error–ridden works ever published on the assassination” (David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003, p.117). For the role of Case Closed in the media’s coverage of the assassination, see Fiction, Propaganda and the Media.
In the footer of the Nova website, the station admits that its ability to deal with questions that affect established power is constrained by its reliance on corporate donations, primarily from an armaments manufacturer and a sponsor of climate–change denial and other reactionary causes: “National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by The Boeing Company. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science.” Of course, an objective TV programme about the JFK assassination, were PBS even to consider making one, would not directly affect the business interests of Boeing or Koch. Nevertheless, the veto power allowed by corporate sponsorship provides a real constraint on criticism of domestic power in general. For a specific, relevant case, see Jane Mayer, ‘A Word from Our Sponsor’, New Yorker, 27 May 2013. For a thorough demolition of Cold Case JFK, see this article by Martin Hay.
The only programme on British television during the week of the 50th anniversary to deal with the facts of the assassination was one which claimed that a Secret Service agent shot JFK by accident, a preposterous notion that had been debunked two decades earlier. Apparently, the programme neglected to mention the inconvenient fact that a home movie exists which shows the Secret Service agent at the time of the fatal shot. The agent was not pointing his gun at anyone.
Although the ‘Secret Service agent killed JFK by accident’ nonsense insulted the intelligence of anyone who possessed more than a rudimentary knowledge of the assassination, it actually represented an advance on the British television coverage of the 40th anniversary, in which the BBC broadcast the one–sided ABC show, The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. Perhaps realising that viewers might be aware of the poor track record of US television companies on the assassination, the BBC attempted to give the programme some credibility by adding a voice–over by a relatively respectable BBC journalist, Gavin Esler. For informed reaction to this programme, see Dealey Plaza Echo, vol.8, no.1 (2004), pp.54ff and this thread on the Education Forum. By November 2013, the British TV schedulers evidently suspected that they could no longer get away with promoting the notion that a lone nut fired all the shots, so instead they put forward the most convincing non–conspiratorial theory available.
It is often assumed that the media coverage of the JFK assassination is the result of direct interference by organisations such as the CIA. There is some evidence for this.
An internal CIA memo lamented the extent of public disbelief in the Warren Commission’s conclusions, and pointed out that such distrust in government institutions affected the CIA directly and indirectly:
This trend of opinion is a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization. The members of the Warren Commission … represented both major parties … efforts to impugn their rectitude and wisdom tend to cast doubt on the whole leadership of American society. … Innuendo of such seriousness affects … the whole reputation of the American government. Our organization itself is directly involved: among other facts, we contributed information to the investigation. Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.
The memo suggested several courses of action, including:
To discuss the publicity problem with liaison and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors) … To employ propaganda assets to answer and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose.
Nine years after the memo was written, the Church Committee pointed out that criticism of the CIA’s provision of information to the Warren Commission was justified (see Church Committee, Book V). The Committee also disclosed the CIA’s extensive links with foreign journalists and media outlets (see Church Committee, Book I, p.455). For more about the influence of the CIA on the media both in the US and abroad, see Carl Bernstein, ‘CIA and the Media,’ Rolling Stone, 20 October 1977.
There is little reason to doubt that in particular instances the CIA does act as an ideological enforcer, using its network of paid and freelance collaborators to influence newspaper and television coverage of sensitive topics such as the JFK assassination. In general, however, it is likely that simple institutional factors have more effect.
Institutional Reasons for Media Bias
The coverage of the JFK assassination by the print and broadcast media is bad for the same institutional reason that coverage of many serious issues by the print and broadcast media is bad.
Large corporate and state media organisations are not democracies. Editorial policy is not generated from below; it is dictated from above. Nor do these organisations function as bulletin boards. Access to print and air time is not open to all; it is almost always available only to those sanctioned by the needs of the institutions.
Objectivity and Power
There are certain topics and news events that are, for the most part, reported accurately and fairly. The reporting of natural disasters, for example, usually reflects the available facts. Sporting and cultural events can be expected to be reported honestly.
Earthquakes and football matches, however, do not often give rise to ideas critical of established power. The more closely a topic relates to political power, the less likely it is that the topic will be treated objectively.
Individuals and Institutions
Institutions are made up of individuals. Some journalists sincerely believe that they are free to express whatever views they want:
The fact that BBC journalists perform as they do without overt external interference is offered as proof of their independence. In 2007, Justin Webb, then the BBC’s North America editor, rejected the charge that he is a propagandist for US power, saying: “Nobody ever tells me what to say about America or the attitude to take towards the United States. And that is the case right across the board in television as well.”
It is no doubt true that reporters and editors are not often instructed in what to write and say. Direct interference is rarely necessary, for obvious reasons.
Social selection ensures that institutions which undermine themselves do not survive for long. Established social institutions generate filtering mechanisms that tend to identify and weed out individuals who threaten to undermine those institutions. Someone, for example, who advocates democratic control over the economy is unlikely to be appointed to the board of directors of a large company. Someone who resists the electronic surveillance of peaceful dissidents is unlikely to rise high within the NSA, the FSB, or GCHQ.
A career in the media, as elsewhere, usually requires an employee to demonstrate that he or she can be trusted to toe the institutional line. A dependable journalist rarely needs to be told what position to take on issues that affect established power. As the famous phrase goes: ‘you write what you like — because they like what you write.’
How Bad Is the Media Coverage?
There are exceptions, of course. The control mechanism is not absolute, and not all journalists are unthinking drones.
In the case of the JFK assassination, anomalous facts do occasionally get reported, although they rarely affect the dominant narrative. So the Zapruder film may indicate at least one shot from the front, but Oswald was still on the sixth floor, firing the rest of the shots, and the Warren Commission did an honest job.
An enterprising journalist will occasionally get a critical story into a mainstream newspaper. On the other hand, the tracking down and publication of previously secret documents, which one might naively imagine is the task of the fearless professional journalist, has almost always come about as the result of action by members of the public. One notable exception is the attempt by the former Washington Post reporter, Jefferson Morley, to secure the release of CIA files that should have been made public years ago.
The JFK assassination does much better than many other topics that might be considered subversive, a fact which no doubt reflects the level of danger that it is now considered to pose to established power. Anyone who is attuned to corporate or state propaganda will be aware that many topics, of more fundamental relevance to contemporary lives than the killing of a politician half a century ago, are given little or no critical coverage. The assassination may be covered badly, but at least it gets covered.
The Future of the JFK Assassination
The proportion of the US population who doubt the official lone–nut interpretation has been kept down to roughly three out of four by the media’s consistently one–sided coverage of the assassination. With the declining influence of traditional media, and easier access to more objective sources of information, that proportion is likely to increase. Although search engines will probably take on some of the filtering role that news organisations have performed, it is difficult to imagine that they will be as effective as newspapers and television have been.