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News people are saying this week that Kennedy was the first television president, and that the end of his life occurred on television, too. No, Abraham Zapruder’s camera did not have a live feed, but an awful lot of the assassination’s aftermath did occur on live television.

Nevertheless, it was still an age of newpapers, much more so than now. Newspapers were so ubiquitous, such a trusted source of information about everything, that people would say, without irony, “All I know is what I read in the newspaper.” The pronouncement communicates that you care enough about events to read about them, and that you trust newspapers more than other sources of information.

Note that the very first headline about the assassination, in the nation’s most trusted paper, reports a single sniper killed President Kennedy. Neither the paper nor anyone else could possibly have gathered evidence in so short a time to demonstrate that one person killed Kennedy.

The credibility gap began with Johnson and Dallas, not Vietnam

Fifty years later, hardly anyone would say he or she trusts news sources with the same faith our parents and grandparents had when they absorbed news about Kennedy’s death in 1963. By 1960, the tabloid-style, yellow press of the years around 1900 had receded from memory. Papers had won back the trust of their readers, so the general feeling developed that if it is in the newspaper, it must be true. The same trust extended, perhaps even more strongly, to government officials. A police officer or some other person speaking for the government would never lie. Therefore no one would question the matter when newspapers reported on Friday afternoon that police had captured Kennedy’s murderer. How did we know Lee Oswald was the assassin? Dallas police and the Dallas district attorney all said so! “Thank God they found him so fast,” people would think with relief.

Now we would say, “That’s about the most fantastic story I’ve ever heard. You want to tell me that this presidential assassin, who just pulled off the most amazing sharpshooting feat in history, would wander around Dallas for ninety minutes after the crime?” He walks, gets on a bus, takes a taxi, picks up his jacket at home, whips out a pistol and shoots a police officer for no reason, walks to movie theater, gets arrested. The press dutifully report this mixture of facts and lies because the people who tell them these things seem to know what they’re talking about. They seem to know the facts. They have the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle; they have the pistol. They know Oswald’s route from the sniper’s nest to the theater, down to the minute. Their pretense of mastery works.

Now we would say to charlatans who wear uniforms, “That’s pretty fishy. Send some more foam our way, and we’ll see how much your story changes from version to version.” We note quickly when accused criminals change their story, but we don’t want to believe that criminals exist in government. In fact, government’s performance in the hours, days, weeks and months after November 22, 1963 made us skeptical then, and it makes us skeptical now. No one, for generations, wants to be suckered again. Once is enough. To be suckered about something that important, the president’s murder, is enough. We don’t want it to happen again.

We now have only one rational response to government reports of all kinds, fed to us through news outlets: bullsh*t. Authoritative sources lied before Kennedy was shot, and authoritative sources have told the truth since Kennedy was shot. What’s significant is that government authorities lied about an event that big, and everyone who thought about it could see it was a lie. That’s a big change.

All I know is what I read in the newspaper. A person might say that, slightly impatiently, in response to some apparently off-the-wall explanation about how the president died in Dallas. It’s a way of saying, “Let’s stick with publicly acknowledged facts.” It tells the other person that you don’t want to go beyond, or too far beyond, what we regard as common knowledge – that is, things we can agree about.

Early reports of Kennedy’s murder, and who did it

Let’s consider how Kennedy’s assassination was reported. The headline and story lead were correct: he was shot in Dealey Plaza at 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963. That tells you what happened, when it happened, and where it happened. After that, however, reporting on the event left the tracks. It had virtually nothing to do with what actually happened. That is, news reports about why and how President Kennedy died became evidence-free zones.

About ninety minutes after a powerful rifle fired from close range blows Kennedy’s skull and brain tissue out the back of his car, police apprehend Lee Oswald, a minor contract agent for the CIA and FBI, and say he shot Kennedy at long range from the back of the car. They even add the charge that Oswald killed police officer J. D. Tippitt after he shot Kennedy, even though no evidence substantiates the accusation. The newspapermen and television jockeys climb aboard both stories like ants on a discarded watermelon rind.

Perhaps Dallas police thought that if they accused Oswald of Tippitt’s murder, police officers might shoot Oswald when they arrested him. You can only guess what people think during stressful, active situations. Nevertheless, you form a vivid impression, when you look closely at how government authorities behaved during the week after the assassination, that they were winging it. The only people who didn’t have to wing it were the assassins who fired their rifles at the presidential limousine in Dealey Plaza. They did their jobs well. Professionally.

So a number of significant people, including media types, swallowed the Oswald-did-it line laid down by the Dallas police, the FBI, President Johnson, The New York Times, and virtually every other person with a microphone or a printing press during the hours that followed the murder. Then Jack Ruby shoots Oswald in the stomach on Sunday, November 24, in the basement of the Dallas police station. People all over the country, used to saying, “All I know is what I read in the newspapers,” now stop short and say, “Wait a minute. How could the Dallas police, who on Friday seemed so competent and Johnny-on-the-spot, have let something like this happen? A gangster just walks into the police station and shoots the man accused of killing President Kennedy with a pistol he carries around in his pocket? Are you kidding me?”

Note the headline and the caption, which both imply that justice is done: “Sketch man sees Kennedy’s assassin die by the law of the gun.” There’s some irony in that statement. The paper might as well have said, “Police watch as local mobster silences government patsy.”

In short, Ruby’s murder of Oswald cast doubt on the government’s entire story about who killed the president. You look at Jack Ruby barging his way through the crowd in the police station to pump a bullet into Oswald’s midsection, and you think, “Someone wants Oswald silenced.” The person who wants Oswald silenced is not Ruby, who says he wants to save Jackie the trauma of a trial. Even gullible people recognize bullsh*t when they see it, or hear it.

In the shock of Kennedy’s death, people might have been ready to accept an apparently conclusive story about a smirking, unstable waif who wanted to knock off a sitting president to make himself infamous. Then you watch Ruby’s infamous act, and you have an outstanding example of cognitive, or even more accurately, social dissonance. Together, we all believed the story Oswald the lone nut. Now what do we do? We can’t believe the Oswald story and the Ruby story at the same time. That does not work.

It’s starting to dawn on Lee Oswald that no one from the federal government, not FBI agent Hosty or anyone else, will save him. He is in the cold, and he will stay there until his death a short time later.

Here’s why that does not work. Plainly, Ruby was silencing someone who had indicated, through long interrogations on Friday, Saturday and into Sunday, that he would not take the role of patsy lightly. Oswald was smart, and he had spunk enough to blow the entire story about him away, quickly. We didn’t know as much about Oswald on November 24 as we know about him now, but we could readily sense that something about his murder, and the reason Ruby gave for shooting him, did not ring true at all. Something is rotten in Dallas.

If we citizens felt confused about the events of November 22 – 24, 1963, imagine how people in the media felt. The news people must have said, right after Ruby shot Oswald, “Man, we have been jerked around and taken for fishcakes. Who will ever believe us again?” That is right: when you engage in a lie that big, no one will ever believe you again.

“All I know is what I read in the newspapers.”

Suddenly, this truth about truth, wasn’t true anymore.

With one bullet to Oswald’s gut, Jack Ruby proclaimed, “You want to know the truth? Here’s some truth that comes out the front of my snub-nosed .38. What do you think about all that garbage the Dallas police fed you about Oswald now?” Did Oswald kill Kennedy, beyond a reasonable doubt? Ask the bullet that came out of Ruby’s pistol.

Used to be, you could dismiss a troublesome interlocutor with, “All I know is what I read in the newpapers.” Now the standard reply is, “You don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, do you?” Credit Jack Ruby, and the gullibility of the news media in the days that immediately followed Jack Kennedy’s murder, for that change. We all have the strange feeling now of having to figure out for ourselves what sources we will rely on for truth about what happens in the outside world. At least we know now where not to find it.

Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office. Can you imagine the thoughts in his mind during this significant moment? Try to imagine Jackie’s thoughts as she stands next to him.

The news media, formerly the sole, privileged source of truth – our window to an opaque sea, became, in one weekend fifty years ago, one more source of distortion, spoon fed “facts,” and misdirected analysis. A new principle replaced the old one about finding knowledge in newspapers: “The camera doesn’t lie.” Abraham Zapruder’s camera didn’t lie when it showed Kennedy’s head hit from the right front, and when it showed Jackie Kennedy retrieving pieces if her husband’s brain from the trunk of the presidential limousine. The television camera didn’t lie two days later, when a local mobster shot a doomed young CIA agent under escort in a Dallas police station. Yes, you can doctor up photographs and film, but you can’t doctor live television. When Ruby killed Oswald, the nation knew something wasn’t right. Where would the truth about why Oswald died come from? Not from the newspapers.

For reflection on the fiftieth anniversary

History has seen many political assassinations over the millennia, but none so significant for a single great power as the killings of Julius Caesar on the Senate steps in Rome, and of Jack Kennedy in Dealey Plaza. Two interesting differences exist. First, Caesar’s murderers did not try to hide their crime from their fellow citizens. Second, civil war followed from their treachery quite quickly. In Kennedy’s case, the people who planned the president’s death concealed their role, rather ineptly but successfully enough to maintain power for some years. The civil conflict that followed from Kennedy’s murder did not develop into a civil war. We cannot know what trouble the shadow of that act will cause in the twenty-first century.

Related book

Back in college I read a book called The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I don’t like the way sociologists write, but their ideas about social psychology are interesting. Until recently, I did not think about how much social psychologists have to say about our understanding of public crimes like President Kennedy’s assassination. Scholars have a lot of territory to explore here, except that if you write serious articles about conspiracy theories, you will not be published in mainstream journals. If you stray off the farm as a scholar, you stay off the farm.