A common defense of the annual Kennedy assassination deluge – one that peaks in anniversary years ending in 5 or 0 for numerological reasons, I assume – is that the assassination happened so long ago that it’s more historical than it is news. If you’re 54 years old or younger, which accounts for about 80 percent of the population, you’re too young to have any contemporaneous memories of the killing from 50 years ago. The current coverage must seem fairly fresh to the youngest of the younger readers. For slightly older readers, the coverage isn’t designed to make you remember the murder and aftermath, it’s designed to remind you of the previous years the media reminded you of the episode.
Who are the designers? The editors and producers who control news media are mostly boomers older than 55, who like all the generations before them frequently confuse important things that happened when they were young for news. Blame them for swamping us this week with endless re-ups of Frame 313, the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy’s bloody pink dress, and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s salute. This week’s most ridiculous look-back has got to be Bob Costas’s No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK, which ran on the NBC Sports Network and described how the assassination disturbed the Dallas Cowboys.
Children have a good excuse for wanting to be told old stories. They’re not very bright, they often don’t absorb the whole narrative the first time around, they learn by repetition and draw comfort from it – and if the story recounts how Bambi’s mother got whacked, they have every right to hope that in the retelling the dark story will be much brighter.
Adults have no such infantile excuse. Oh, I don’t mind readers sending their favorite books through their brains again the way cows propel partly-digested grass through successive stomachs. Reading a favorite book returns new rewards, reducing the reader’s shame factor from low to zero. But the urge to read a recycled account of a past event makes about as much sense as wanting to repeat 6th grade. Who wants to live the movie “Memento”?
I’m not such a stick in the mud that I protest people keying on an anniversary to remember historical milestones, to lay wreaths, to dress in costumes and reenact battles or historical events, hold hands, or give speeches. I don’t even mind news accounts of such gatherings as long as they’re buried somewhere in the newspaper where I can’t find them. But the basics and the minutiae of the Kennedy assassination have been so endlessly raked over, repurposed, and rerun that this week’s re-coverage of the slaying and burial in newspapers, magazines, on TV, and everywhere on the Web stinks of redundancy. You didn’t know Lee Harvey Oswald’s pallbearers were reporters, dragooned into service? The Associated Press retells the story for the umpteenth time. You were unaware of the “four shattering days” between the shooting and the burial? Here’s the “new” Washington Post piece. Never heard about the conspiracy theories? Time has it covered.
Obviously the Kennedy killing stressed the collective unconscious in a way that few modern events have. It’s easy – especially if you don’t know that much about Kennedy’s presidency – to regard him as a young king married to a beautiful queen who was cut down in his prime by dark, hateful forces who were never adequately identified or properly punished. But that’s the fairy tale version, suitable only for those still reading picture books. Assassins’ bullets have been chasing presidents (Reagan, Ford, Truman, Roosevelt, et al.) for a long time. It’s almost easier to name a president who wasn’t the target of an assassination plot than one who was. It’s that sort of country.
Embossing historical events like the Kennedy assassination with artificial newsworthiness has long been a part of the news game, as has been criticism of these anniversarial outbursts. On every news desk – from international to sports – editors love to assign them because nobody except for a few cranks are going to knock them for doing so. Reporters don’t mind writing them because most of what they need to look up exists in their publication’s morgue or on Nexis. TV loves the revisits because it has miles of archives to unspool and aging reporters eager to relive their glory days before the cameras just one more time before they die.
In time – probably as the younger newsroom boomers are put out to pasture – the Kennedy assassination will recede into deep memory. The new journalists-in-charge, a much younger breed who know the incident only from the retellings, will have to rub their temples (or use Google) to recall who got shot first, John or Robert Kennedy, and the average news consumer will be as interested in the anniversaries of their deaths as today’s readers are in the assassination of President William McKinley.
News consumers, like children, eventually grow out of the old stories, only to be captivated by new ones.