Friday, August 24, 2012

The Media and the Kennedy Assassination

The Media and the Kennedy Assassination - by Ross F. Ralston

The Media and the Kennedy assassination: The social construction of reality by Ross Frank Ralston – 
(Ph.d. dissertation, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 1999)

The research problem was to take a major political event in American history – the John F. Kennedy assassination – explore major media coverage of the event, and then examine media construction of social issues.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has two official versions in our nation’s history. The Warren-Ford-Dulles Commission came to the conclusion that, without assistance, a man in a building shot a man in a car. In 1979, pursuant to post-Watergate cynicism in government, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded there was a conspiracy and a second gunman fired from a different direction. However, high school textbooks have reified only the first version of history – that of a single lone assassin.

A content analysis of CBS and Time-Life coverage is made using Lasswell’s methodology of surveillance, correlation, and transmission. CBS produced the most television assassination documentaries and Time-Life owned the Zapruder film which was crucial evidence. Of the four perspectives on media coverage (the Fourth Estate, Mirror Approach, Marketing, and Hegemony), only hegemony fits the consistent pattern of the media coverage.

Berger and Luckman’s (1967) social construction of reality involves reification, legitimization, and institutionalization. As Kuhn (1962) notes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, normally when the number of anomalies to a theory becomes too great, we are forced to switch to another explanation. However, this did not happen with the Kennedy assassination. We must ask why. The Fourth Estate would predict the media pursue the story with a check and a balance of government by responsible investigative reporting, as the Marketing Approach would give the consumers what they want. The Mirror Approach is where the media represents a neutral transmission of information while with Hegemony, the major media would dissipate the greatest possible doubt of a conspiracy in order to create the impression that the political structure was secure and legitimate to create an image of the stable institution of government. The study concludes that hegemony best explains media coverage of the event.


On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in the streets of Dallas, Texas, by gunfire which also wounded Texas Governor John B. Connally. Within hours, local police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in connection with the shooting. Oswald steadfastly denied responsibility or the assassination and claimed himself to be innocent, but never lived to stand trial  Two days later, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, materialized in the basement of the city jail with a loaded .38 revolver and fired one shot into Oswald’s abdomen. Within hours Oswald was dead. The possibility of a trial for him, replete with adversary proceedings, had been eliminated.

The same day that Ruby murdered Oswald, FBI Director J. Edgar Hover phoned the White House and spoke to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aide, Walter Jenkins, about a conversation he had with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. According to Jenkins’ memo of the conversation, Hover stated that “the thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.” (Appendix to Hearings before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. 1979, 11HSCA411); hereafter referred to as HSCA). Katzenbach testified that he was reacting to repeated calls from the State Department that a no-conspiracy statement be issued to “quash the beliefs” abroad that conspiracy rumors were true (1979, 3HSCA726). The next day Katzenbach sent a memo to White House Aide William Moyers advising the formation of a presidential commission to investigate the assassination. In the memo he stated: It is very important that all of the facts surrounding President Kenendy’s assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad. That all the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now…..

….Conflict sociologist Antonio Gramsci noted that as sociologists we must deal with the structure of society and the actor. Writing in prison notebooks after being imprisoned by Mussolini for ten years, he noted that the domination of one class over others could be achieved by political force as well as by ideological means, with the later being more significant….The more prominent the institutions of civil society, the stronger the role of ideology rather than force will play in shaping the path of society. To explain this, he coined the word, “hegemony” (Gramsci, 1971), and placed it into the social construction of political truth.

To Gramsci, hegemony referred to a situation where “a certain way of life and thought is dominant, in which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society in all its institutional and private manifestations” (Williams, 1960:587)….Key to the process is that hegemony leads to the ability to define the parameters of debate and legitimate discussion over alternative values or beliefs. The result of the hegemonic process is that the majority of the population is largely unaware of alternative values and readings of history (Garson, 1973:164)….

Reification – JFK’s Murder in Textboks

Even if we may never find a satisfactory conclusion to the JFK murder which is acceptable to a majority of citizens, we can learn about how government pronouncements can be reified in the face of contrary evidence and popular opinion.

Despite the public doubts, two different conclusions by official government investigations and suppressed evidence, high school and college textbooks have clung to a simplistic and reified account of the President’s murder….

…The reification process is consistent with the individualistic/great man theory of history. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles may have had this in mind when he suggested that past cases of political murder in America by individuals acting alone might hold the key to the solution of Kennedy’s fate:

Dulles: It’s a fascinating book, you’ll find a pattern running through here that I think you’ll find in the present case. The last one is the attack on Truman. There you have a plot, but there other cases are all habitual going back to the attack on Jackson in 1835.

Russell: The Lincoln Assassination was a plot.

Dulles: Yes, but one man was so dominant that it almost wasn’t a plot.

(Warren Commission Executive Session Transcript. December 16, 1963:52).

Europeans seem more likely to expect the manipulation of politics by hidden forces. In a subtle way, Dulles’ argument brings up one facet of American society that is so different from the prevailing attitudes of Europeans. Conspiracy is a word which does not carry the same connotation in Europe as it does in the United States. To have the process altered by one sharp shooting nut who got lucky one day makes reality a fluke – easier to live with, an exception that proves the rule. Only Latin American countries or banana republics can have the process manipulated by forces which do not fit into the fabric of democracy or pluralism….

.... The Fourth Estate approach is derived from ideals of the Enlightenment and carries the belief that man is a creature of reason who wants to know the truth and will be guided by it, that he can find truth by applying his reason without outside restrictions while he is also born with inalienable natural rights and that he forms governments of his own volition in order to protect those rights and hence the best government is that which governs least (Voelkner, 1975:11)

The result is that the press must have a minimum of restraints imposed on it because man can find the truth with the free flow of ideas and then there are built-in corrections to government control. A free and aggressive press will uncover those other parts of the profession if they lie or distort. Remember, after all, man puts out all information and ideas to the cold calculus of reason. He may find some truth amidst falsehood or some falsehood among truth, but overall and in the long run truth will prevail. In other words, government should keep its hands off the press.

With this belief, if the press is not an instrument of government, it also does not speak for an elite ruling class. People discern between truth and falsehood, so it is essential that minorities as well as majorities; the politically weak as well as the politically strong should have roughly equal access to public opinion and the media.

Still, a direct chilling example was provided by former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (1977) who revealed that, after World War II when the CIA was formed, publishers and executive management have eagerly volunteered their services for the benefit of that agency. His investigation discovered that over 400 American journalists “have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency.” The journalists “provided a full range of clandestine services, from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries.” Some were recruited to be paid CIA intelligence officers while others were conduits for money and carried messages to agents and operatives. Included among the reporters were respected Pulitzer Prize winners.

Some of this hegemonic relationship was an outgrowth of fighting global communism. In that struggle Bernstein perceptively notes “the traditional line separating the American Press Corps and government was often indistinguishable.” Media officials were sometimes paid for their CIA-related services while others only signed secrecy agreements.

On the FBI side of the coin, J. Edgar Hover cultivated media outlets in order to “covertly influence the public’s perception of persons and organizations.”

“The Bureau’s use of the news media took two different forms: placing unfavorable articles and documentaries about targeted groups, and leaking derogatory information intended to discredit individuals.” (Senate Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations, book three. 1976:35)


In order to examine news media construction of social phenomena on major issues, this study involves an examination of the Kennedy assassination. It utilizes Lasswell’s elements of analyzing media through the lens of the four perspective media content:

The Market Approach would predict that the major media would give the consumer audience what they want. Since a clear majority of Americans have rejected the lone gunman theory, the idea of the second gunman in media content would sell copies, appealing to profits.

The Fourth Estate conception would predict that as a monitor towards checks and balances, the major media would pursue the story with responsible investigative reporting, being careful not to sensationalize.

Hegemony would predict, in light of both the Katzenbach memo and the conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Earl Warren, that the major media would absorb and neutralize the greatest possible doubt of conspiracy in order to create the impression that the political power structure is secure and legitimate in the wake of JFK’s murder, so that reality would be constructed to create an image of the stable institution of government – what the new President and Katzenbach believed to be a necessity.

The Mirror Approach would predict that the major media would just gather and transmit information with the journalist being neutral, like a television camera pointed at the eye of an event.


…Although it is not the intention of this treatise to examine the first early issues of Time or Life, it is important to note that early themes of correlation were put into motion quite rapidly. Time pronounced Oswald guilty in its December 6, 1963, issue, which was released just days after the shooting with the headline, “The Man Who Killed Kennedy.” Likewise, Jack Ruby was a loner, pictured as a man who could not forget how Jackie had suffered “so he took his gun and killed Oswald.” He was also a man “big timers never even knew existed.”

Life’s take on Oswald was remarkably similar. In its November 29, issue, released within hours of Oswald’s death, he was pronounced guilty without any adversary testing of evidence with the title theme, “Assassin: The Man Held – And Killed – For Murder.” 

With reports of eyewitnesses circulating about gunfire emanating from the front of Kennedy’s vehicle, and the opinion of Parkland doctors that JFK’s throat wound was one of entrance (Meagher, 1967:149-159), the specter of a second gunman was raised since the “Oswald window” was behind the President. Speculation of a larger plot loomed on the horizon…..

“AWD showed me a letter he had received from Rankin recently expressing the desire to reach a modus vivendi in order to allay the story of CIA’s possible sponsorship of Oswald’s activity.”


The neutral assumption of a Mirror Approach leaves the gate open to whatever the camera picks up. So does the Market Approach with its no holds barred grip on reality. Yet Hegemony reflects gatekeeping through boundary maintenance as does the Fourth Estate since the media acts as a check and balance on government and politics.

Time and Life’s blanket endorsements of the Warren Report upon its release do not resemble the scrutiny of dedicated inquiry which is the hallmark of the Fourth Estate approach. It shuts the door to future expose.

Sell Opinoin

The Fourth Estate exists to check and balance institutions of government by digging out data and the Market Approach is geared to selling newspapers. Since the Mirror Approach would be neutral, only Hegemony can lay bona-fide claim to selling consistently the opinioned vision of the world.


In the coverage of the Kennedy assassination, Content Creation revolved around suppression of the Zapruder film by Time/Life and clear distortion by CBS…

True Fact Finding and the Media Portrayal based on it continued to reflect a bland acceptance of the Report and its contents for the Audience. Gatekeeping was evident throughout as Boundary Maintenance of that initial position was repeatedly continually in Content Creation. Repetition through cognitive dissonance reveals that hegemony was the norm and practice of its authors….

With techniques such as distortion, media suppression of the Zapruder film and contrived rifle tests, we have to ask ourselves about the social construction of reality in explaining and justifying the social world. Without the diffusion of ideas and evidence and with the passive acceptance of missing evidence, a Fourth Estate approach is not in operation. Something else is operating instead.

 [BK: I will soon post a link to the rest of this dissertation, which is posted on line and available at Greg Parker's ReOpenJFK blog.] 

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