by Ed Morrissey
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, cut down in Dallas in the third year of his term by Lee Harvey Oswald, who like so many other political assassins in history was nothing more than a failed crank, of the communist variety in this case.
Media organizations will offer retrospectives all day long, with replays of their live coverage beginning this afternoon. This is the relevant part of the CBS News record, in which Walter Cronkite informs the nation (based on confirmation from Dan Rather at the scene) that the President was indeed dead:
To call this a seminal event in American history is a rather large understatement. The assassination started a turbulent decade of protests and worse, more assassinations — Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother Robert among them — and the expansion of what would then be America’s longest war, and its most divisive in a hundred years. One could fill a library of books about the assassination itself, and fill Alcratraz several times over with purported conspirators and ringleaders who supposedly masterminded it. We could fill another library with books about how the event changed America, mostly for the worse, and what it means today.
I don’t have any recollection of the assassination myself; I was only seven months old when it took place. I can still understand what people mean when they say that they can always remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. I have the same connection to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan 18 years later, which fortunately turned out better for him and for America. And of course, all of us have that shared sense of memory about 9/11.
Even though I don’t have that connection to today’s event, it is still well worth noting for its cultural and political impact. Looking at the recollections and the 50-year-old coverage is like looking through a hazy and monochromatic telescope to an America that passed from the scene with the President, if it really existed at all. I’ll miss that coverage as I’ll be doing a show today, but most of it is on YouTube now, and I may watch it this weekend when I have more time.
What do you recall about the assassination? And what do you think it means, 50 years later?
Update: My old friend (and first paying editor!) Ira Stoll has a new book on the subject: JFK, Conservative. Be sure to check it out, on Kindle or audiobook as well.
Update: John Ziegler has an excellent essay below on the coverage of the assassination — why it was so good, and what we can learn from it.
Editorial by John Ziegler
Initial Reporting on Death of JFK Stands the Test of Time
The first thing I noticed is the staggering volume of local coverage. It was simply stunning, especially given the incredible time and technological restrictions which the paper was facing when the world suddenly changed with three cracks of an assassin’s rifle. In both quantity and quality the coverage put the far-more technologically advanced modern media to shame in many important ways.
The assassination occurred at 12:30 pm (though the paper reported it happened at 12:20 pm) on a Friday afternoon and yet the Saturday edition of the paper somehow how featured, by my count, at least 56 separate news items related to the event which originated locally. This was on top of dozens more which were taken from various international news wire services (which were also extremely impressive, especially when it came to somehow extensively documenting Oswald’s time in Russia nearly instantly).
I doubt that there is a traditional news paper today, even with all of our Internet and Smartphone-based advances, which would be capable of putting out 56 local stories on one subject in far less than 24 hours (especially when also having to dramatically alter almost all of the paper’s advertising in the same short time frame). If they were able to somehow pull that off, I seriously doubt their accuracy would be able to stand the test of time and scrutiny nearly as well as that first edition of the The Dallas Morning News.
As someone who has studied the Kennedy assassination as closely as anyone who hasn’t been paid to do so (and who evolved from believing in a conspiracy as a young man to finally concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald effectively acted alone), I was almost literally shocked at just how accurate the initial reporting was. They not only got very little wrong, but, just as amazingly, they got almost everything exactly right.
Even when they engaged in wild and (then) unsubstantiated, non-Google supported speculation about Oswald having recently failed in an attempt of the life of a local General, they turned out to be absolutely correct. As I was turning the pages, I half expected to see an article about how Jack Ruby was already stalking Oswald and planning to take him out.
Considering how bad the preliminary reporting has been for recent breaking news events in the Cable News/Internet era, I found it utterly remarkable that I could find only two clear and significant errors in the newspaper.
First, Oswald’s gun (a Mannlicher-Carcano from Italy) was misidentified as a German “Mauser,” though one account did accurately indicate that the rifle was “Italian.” The other error was that it was reported that Kennedy had two bullets wounds; one in the throat (which was an opening possibly too small to have come from a bullet, especially an exit wound, and which I suspect came from a bone fragment from the first bullet striking his back) and, of course, his head. We now know that he also had a back wound which apparently stopped after only a couple of inches (which I believe is where the first shot struck Kennedy before falling out on a stretcher and being later misidentified as the “Magic Bullet”).
Conversely, most of the voluminous pages from that first day read like a far more accurate accounting of the event than anything we are likely to see with the flood of provocative (and sometimes flat-out wacky) television products being shown in conjunction with the 50th anniversary. At least in this particular case, it is very clear that, when it comes to aging, news is much more like baked bread than fine wine.
The initial general narrative, consistent throughout the newspaper’s pages (I’m sure some will claim this narrative was mysteriously dictated by some sort of conspiracy communicated anonymously and instantaneously to the dozens of reporters hurriedly working on the case all over town, without cell phones) is that three shots were fired from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building and that Oswald is clearly guilty. There is absolutely no ambiguity about any of that in any of the many accounts from both reporters and eyewitnesses. In fact, there is even an article speculating that Oswald will try to claim insanity as his defense at trial.
For those who want to believe that Oswald was not the shooter (or that there was some grand conspiracy at work), you somehow have to at least totally explain the following indisputable facts, all of which were in some way accurately presented, or at least alluded to, on that first day:
Why was the rifle found on the sixth floor mailed to Oswald’s address under a known alias?
Why was he seen carrying “curtain rods” in a brown paper bag to work that day and why was the bag found, but “curtain rods” were not?
Why did all of the witnesses reported on by the newspaper say there were exactly three shots fired and why were there three shell casings found in the sniper’s layer and not one shred of evidence of indicating the existence of more than three bullet fragments at the crime scene?
Why was Oswald the only worker at the School Book Depository Building to flee before a roll call?
Why was a police officer killed in Oswald’s neighborhood by someone who matched the description of Oswald just blocks from where Oswald was found sneaking into a theater minutes later carrying a pistol which matched the murder weapon of the officer?
Why did his nondescript neighbor, Ruth Paine, get him a job at the depository before the parade route was announced or changed so that it went right past that building?
Most interestingly, much of the reporting that first day unknowingly cuts off future conspiracy theories which could not yet have even been contemplated. For instance, one article destroys a conspiracy favorite by indicating that the “Bubble Top” for the presidential limousine which was “mysteriously” not used that day was NOT actually bullet proof. It is also remarkable how often the paper describes the shots as “measured,” “not rushed,” and “easy,” all of which directly contradicts the notion that Oswald didn’t have enough time to pull this off effectively (it also substantiates my theory of the shot sequencing which is based on the assassination taking slightly longer than the generally accepted six seconds). Importantly, there was not one mention of a shot hitting a curb, which was later a key (mistakenly I believe) element of the Warren Commission’s theory.
It is also important to note that the paper presents a completely accurate and critical account from the wife of Texas Governor John Connally (who was also wounded in the attack). Nellie Connally’s first telling of the story (one which both she and her husband were both positive of until the day they died) was that Kennedy was hit once before her husband was. This is critical because, unless both of them are badly mistaken regarding a fact about which you would think they are highly credible witnesses, the so-called “Single Bullet Theory” can not be true (my view is that the theory is neither accurate nor needed for Oswald to be the lone gunman and was an invention of convenience by future U.S. Senator Arlen Specter).
Finally, perhaps the most interesting take away for seeing how true history was properly recorded 50 years ago (it should be noted that the consistent use of the word “Negro” to needlessly identify a subject’s race was a bit disconcerting), was how utterly devoid of sensationalism and frivolous celebrity obsession the reporting was. Despite Kennedy’s well-known connections to the world of Hollywood, there was not even one mention I could find of any celebrity reaction to the tragedy.
If the same event happened in today’s media environment, I’m quite certain that we would know far more about how Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe responded than we would have about the critical testimony of Nellie Connally or Oswald’s time spent in Russia trying to be a Marxist.
The truth is that Lee Harvey Oswald is the only person to fire a shot to kill President Kennedy. It isn’t a fact which is particularly sexy or satisfying, but it is unquestionably the truth. Incredibly, in a great testament to what journalism once was, all you need to know to prove this reality was already available in Dallas by the time the sun rose the next day.