Faith overwhelms facts: AP’s un-journalism on JFK’s assassination
According to the Associated Press, a lucrative conspiracy theory industry is keeping alive a non-existent controversy about the assassination of President Kennedy.
“Best-selling books and blockbuster movies have raked in massive profits since 1963. And now, with the 50th anniversary of that horrible day in Dallas looming, a new generation is set to cash in,” writes reporter Allen Breed in a story republished online by the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere.
This is the reassuring point of view that holds there’s nothing to worry about in the JFK story. Confronted with continuing public doubt, Breed does not assess the latest facts or interview the best informed experts about their implications. He presents his opinion — the minority view — as fact and casts aspersions on those who disagree without much discussion of the facts of the case.
This is the kind of un-journalism that too often issues from major news organizations frustrated by the intractable and contradictory evidence in the JFK assassination story.
Breed is of the opinion that the FBI and the Dallas Police Department solved the case within 24 hours — a misguided misfit named Lee Oswald killed JFK — and that the Warren Commission’s investigation proved it beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, he claims that only a few irrational people out to make money planted the seed of conspiracy in the minds of Americans — the majority of whom he implies are gullible, if not irrational.
As journalism goes, this fails on many levels.
In fact, the popular view that JFK’s death was the work of more than one person did not originate with the publications of conspiracy theorists.
As I pointed out in 2010 in theatlantic.com, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a statistically and scientifically valid opinion poll within a week of JFK’s assassination — when there were exactly zero published conspiracy theories in print. The NORC found solid majorities in the nation (62 percent) and in Dallas (66 percent) saying they believed that more than one person was involved. Fact #1 that eluded the AP editorial hierarchy: The conspiratorial understanding of JFK’s death originated in the circumstances of the crime, not the writings of conspiracy theorists.
The conspiracy theorists, claims Breed, blame anyone “but that Oswald, a hapless former Marine, was in the right place at the right time, with motive and opportunity to pull off one of the most audacious crimes in American history.”
In fact, the Warren Commission, which Breed cites as authoritative, admitted that it could not establish a motive for Oswald’s alleged action.
“Many factors were undoubtedly involved in Oswald’s motivation for the assassination, and the Commission does not believe that it can ascribe to him any one motive or group of motives,” the report concluded. (Warren Report paperback edition, p. 423.) Fact #2: Oswald’s motives can only be inferred. There is scant evidence and no proof that he was motivated to kill Kennedy.
This fact has been pointed out countless times by Warren Commission critics, raising the question of why such an inaccurate assertion could pass muster in AP’s editorial process.The answer lies in cognitive dissonance of the journalistic profession when contemplating the enigma of JFK’s assassination.
Cognitive dissonance is “the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions, ideas, beliefs. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel ‘disequilibrium’: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment.”
In the case of Breed, the two conflicting cognitions are the fact that most Americans don’t believe the official story and his personal conviction that the case is settled. His frustration is palpable and leads him to make claims refuted by his own reporting. Rather than report the conflicting facts he creates new “facts” at the expense of his own credibility.
Consider, for example, his claims that “blockbuster movies” — note the plural — have raked in massive profits. His story cites Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” which did indeed do very well at the box office. Breed cites no other examples — and for good reason. Fact #3: There are no other blockbuster JFk conspiracy movies that raked in “massive profits.”
Breed overlooks his own reporting when discussing best-selling JFK books. Of all the recent books cited in his article the one that sold the most is Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy,” which sold 1 million copies in four months; the conspiracy book that sold the most is Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgement,” which was published in 1965 and has not sold anywhere near a million copies in the past decade. O’Reilly’s sales figures are more than ten times greater than those of the only recent conspiracy book cited, Lamar Waldron’s and Thom Hartman’s “Legacy of Secrecy.” Indeed, Gerald Posner’s anti-conspiratorial “Case Closed” has sold more copies than Waldron and Hartman’s book.
Thus Breed demolishes his own thesis. Fact #4: Conspiracy theories do not drive the market in JFK books because anti-conspiratorial books sell as well, if not better. A more judicious reporter would say that the American public remains intensely interested in the subject and buys book on both sides of the debate in large quantities.
Why could Breed and his editors not correctly describe the implications of his reporting? Social pyschologists observe that people suffering from cognitive dissonance “reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.”
Breed reduces the importance of dissonant facts in the JFK assassination story by avoiding them altogether.
In assessing the views of JFK conspiracy theorists, he might have reported what professionally trained, peer-reviewed historians think of the JFK controversy. If he had, he would have found Fact #5: four of the five tenured historians to publish books on JFK’s assassination in the past decade concluded that there was some kind of conspiracy.
(For the record they are: David Kaiser of the Naval War College, author of “The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy“ (2008); Michael Kurtz of Southeastern Louisiana University, author of “The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman Versus Conspiracy‘”(2006); Gerald McKnight of Hood College, author of “Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why ”(2005); David Wrone of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, author of ”The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination“ (2003); and Robert Dallek of UCLA, author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963″ (2003). All but Dallek concluded there was some kind of conspiracy.)
Breed could have reported on new evidence uncovered by the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s and reported by professional journalists such as the AP’s own Deb Reichman, and the Washington Post‘s George Lardner. He might have cited the sworn depositions from medical technicians who processed the photos of JFK’s autopsy who said the photos they developed are not in the National Archives. This testimony from competent professionals who had never spoken on the record to conspiracy theorists or anyone else, point to Fact #6: There is reasonable doubt about the veracity of the medical evidence in the case.
He might have cited CIA records declassified by the ARRB, which revealed that the Warren Commission was deceived when CIA director John McCone and deputy director Richard Helms “testified concerning the Agency’s limited knowledge of Oswald before the assassination.”
In fact, as this CIA cable from October 1963 shows senior CIA officials knew all about Oswald’s politics, travels and foreign contacts seven weeks before JFK was killed. These officials, who reported to Richard Helms and were responsible for secret anti-Castro operations and counterintelligence, knew enough about Oswald to write a four-page cable about him and to assess his state of mind. In their view he was ”maturing.” Breed doesn’t know or doesn’t care to share Fact #7: Oswald was a known quantity to six top CIA operations officers shortly before Kennedy was killed.
The problem with such facts is that they are bothersome and disturbing. They are show there is no consensus about a pivotal moment in American history. They show that the CIA deceived investigators about the accused assassin. They hinder the journalistic imperative to reach conclusions quickly about the public events. After fifty years, Breed and the AP are understandably frustrated that the available facts don’t yield a tidy conclusion.
But the solution is not to substitute faith in the theory of a lone gunman for the facts of the case or to offer more comforting claims that can’t be supported. The solution is to report facts that are indisputably true: The fact is, after 50 years, the U.S. government has yet to produce an explanation of JFK’s death that is capable of persuading a majority of rational Americans.
1. John Kirsch says:
This excellent post reminds me of a revealing moment a few years ago on one of the Sunday talk shows. Somehow the roundtable discussion turned to the aging Fidel Castro and Sam Donaldson had the temerity to say he hoped that Castro would reveal the truth about Dallas before passing on. The other panelists, all Washington insiders like Donaldson, registered instant disdain for Donaldson, who had had the bad taste to publicly suggest that the Official Story might be wrong. It was an example of the mindset that stands in the way of getting at the truth about 11/22.
2. Robert Morrow says:
All the major media have at one time or another made large pushes in covering up the JFK assassination and the Associated Press is no exception.
Read “THE TAKING OF AMERICA, 1-2-3″
Chapter 9 Control of the Media http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/ToA/ToAchp9.html
Check out the behavior of the AP in 1967 just as the Garrison investigation into the JFK assassination was getting legs.
“Associated Press became an accessory after the fact by taking an action unprecedented for a news wire service. It published a three-part report by three AP writers in 1967, completely supporting the Warren Commission. The report was transmitted by wire to all AP subscribers over a three-day period and it occupied a total of nine to ten full pages of the average newspaper. It was not news, but editorial policy and took a position supporting the Warren Commission and the official government propaganda about the assassination of John Kennedy.”
9-10 pages of a newspaper is a huge propaganda piece.
3. Gerry Mantel says:
That last sentence really hits home: For in the late 70s, the HSCA determined that the JFK assassination was still an “open case.”
So why does this “government” of ours still refuse to deal with this case?
If it did, Mr. Breed could put his skills to better use ..
4. John Kirsch says:
Defenders of the Official Story are defensive because they want Americans to accept, without question, a proposition that is very hard to take at face value. Boiled down to its essence, the Warren Commission said it had determined that that the president of the United States was gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of a major American city and that it, the Warren Commission, didn’t know why. Americans then and now have had difficulty understanding how the federal government, with all its resources, could have arrived at such an unsatisfying conclusion.
5. Thomas says:
Nice use of the cognitive dissonance model. I’ve always been irritated that lone nut believers use pop psychology to demean conspiracy theorists (re: one nut killing a popular president doesn’t “balance the scales” emotionally so we “need” a big conspiracy.).
The fact is Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm model for shifts in scientific revolutions is a better fit when it comes to the mainstream media and the JFK assassination. Mainstream media and many historians have accepted the lone nut explanation and it has become the existing paradigm. All evidence that supports is integrated into the model and all evidence that contradicts is ignored or swept aside and there is PLENTY to ignore and sweep aside. Cognitive dissonance comes into play in the form of denial and discounting.
Sorry for all the psychologizing but I am a social psychologist!
6. PLV says:
indeed the “circumstances of the crime” the fomented doubt, not conspiracy
hucksters. And I recently witnessed what to me appeared to be an extreme case of
cognitive dissonance, in particular the act of “reducing the importance of any
one of the dissonant elements.”
o jeff pascal says:
In this full article published in the Wash Post there were some good comments by Lamar Waldron and Gary Aguilar, but unfortunately unless something really major happens & it seems no matter what comes out, that nothing is ever straightforward & behind every major controversy of this case lies a completely different story or 3, which may well be the real story. What I’ m worried about is with all these books coming out rather than clarifying, it will be a circling of the wagons where Lamar Waldron can say the mob did it, or James Swanson can say Oswald did it, or the books CIA Rogues saying they did it, or Roger Stone stating LBJ did it. I think they are all right to a degree and this is one case where there is no precedent and was a large effort to get rid of JFK using multiple groups, and thus can’t be pinned on one Agency or individual mastermind. Since LBJ became President though ,his culpability even if he played a lesser role has to be more than some rogue intelligence officer.However, one has to be at least open to conspiracy, or there’s not much point is there if we are to get past the current impasse.
7. Hans Trayne says:
media spent more air time the last 2 months on reconstructing how Jodi Arias
murdered her ex-fiancé than it ever did on the JFK assassination. A simple,
honest reconstruction of the attack with all historical elements that were in
place 22 Nov 1963 represented might help settle the battle of wits employed to
convince a global public one person shot JFK from a building behind him as he
was driven past it. if people can see what this shooter saw (or could not see)it
might help put this thing to bed?
8. Marie Fonzi (Mrs. Gaeton Fonzi) says:
preface to the upcoming reissue of The Last Investigation I quote what Gaeton
wrote in a letter to a frustrated American who wrote to him wanting to forget
about solving JFK’s murder. Gaeton told him that he himself could never get the
Kennedy Assassination out of his life because he simply couldn’t divorce himself
from living in our place and time, and “I also don’t want to because I have the
feeling it would demean the efforts of a few honest researchers out there who do
have time and resources and are coming up with new information that helps
strengthen the foundation that the truth will need to survive alive in history.”
9. George Simmons says:
This is an excellent piece which exposes how the media, to a large extent, do not wish to confront any facts which may cast doubt on the official version of events.
I guess the question we should ask is why are the media so reluctant to openly and honestly discuss the many facts that have been revealed which go against the Warren Commission findings.
Who owns the media? and what are there vested interests?
When I think of this I think of the George Joannides revelations regarding the DRE and HSCA and how some sections of the media were, as I understand it, not interested in the story because they did not consider it to be news.I think thats quite astonishing.
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§ HSCA: '... the brain ... is among certain autopsy materials which are unaccounted for.' "The panel itself was unable to examine the brain because it is among certain autopsy materials which are unaccounted for." - House Select Committee on Assassinations Report, Volume VII, p. 177.
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