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Covering the Body

enlarge Barbie Zelizer.

Barbie Zelizer. Courtesy Martha Stewart

Barbie Zelizer holds the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. A former journalist, she focuses on the cultural dimensions of journalism. She is the author of numerous books, including Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Prof. Zelizer answers questions about the media coverage of President Kennedy's assassination.

Questions

How did Americans learn of the assassination?
How did the media cover it?
How did people react to the film footage?
What's the story behind Abraham Zapruder's film?
Did the footage serve as evidence?
What did the 24/7 story mean for television news?
Did the media fail the nation?
Do you think the assassination made Americans cynical?
Is September 11, 2001 a similar cultural touchstone?
What can we learn from looking at the media coverage?


How did Americans learn of the assassination on November 22, 1963?

You have to remember that there were very few TV stations, and people had not yet had the kind of event that would cause them to corral around the TV. This was the very first time that TV brought the public together. The first relays of what had happened went out on radio, by the way.

Television did what was unthinkable back then -- it stopped all broadcasting and all commercials. It stayed with the story for four days. It did everything it could to provide people with ongoing information. From Friday to Monday it provided the American public with an ongoing visual screen of what was going on in the assassination story.

I think that today when crises happen we go immediately to the TV. People don't even think twice. When 9/11 happened people turned on the TV set, even in schools.

In the Sixties that was not the case. TV news was hardly coming of age at that time. We only had 15-minute newscasts. It was very elementary. This was a really new experience.

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How did the media cover the assassination?

This was really the event that TV news journalists like to claim brought them to age. In 1963 TV journalists were seen as the fluff journalists. Print journalists were the serious journalists. When the Kennedy assassination occurred, of course, TV cameras were able to roll 24/7, and so what you got was an ongoing attentiveness to the event that print could not provide. We got ongoing continuous coverage of the story.

But, in fact, the TV news coverage of the event was uneven. Reporters were corralled in press buses. They couldn't see or hear what happened. The first reports that went out were uncorroborated.

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How did people react to the film footage?

Much was captured on film, but the actual sight of Kennedy being shot was not something we saw until later.

One of the parts that I think TV covered best was when Lee Harvey Oswald -- who at the time was the alleged assassin and was being transferred from one prison to another -- was shot point blank by Jack Ruby and this was filmed by TV cameras.

That particular part of the story is impossible to tell without the camera frame in which we saw it. It was a haphazard, impromptu setting in which reporters were crowded together, literally trying to get a glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald.

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What's the story behind Abraham Zapruder's film?

The Zapruder film was taken by a Dallas dressmaker who was simply on the spot with his old-fashioned film camera, taking what he felt was a historical record, for his own use. And it turned out he produced the most cinematic vision of the shots being fired and President Kennedy being shot.

That film was actually put in safekeeping and it was not allowed to be aired. It was not seen by most Americans until many years later. People knew that there was this amateur footage showing what had happened -- but they didn't get to see it. It's a very graphic sequence.

But in the meantime, there were all of these official investigations. It was an odd situation where you had commissions and Congressional committees looking at the evidence, but the evidence had not been seen by the public. This was one reason people created conspiracy theories.

We are much more comfortable with the issue of amateur documentation today.

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Did the footage serve as evidence in the investigation?

Yes, but the problem with a lot of the documentation from the Kennedy assassination is that we weren't really ready for this kind of event and this kind of documentation. So a lot of the documentation was not kept the way it needed to be. It was not kept pristine. The original Zapruder film was damaged, though fortunately copies had been made. Photos were tampered with, photos were lost. We say today that there is evidence, but the evidence changed over time.

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What did the 24/7 story mean for television news?

This became an origin narrative for TV journalism. It has been retold in kind of mythic fashion by the news organizations and the journalists who covered the event. Dan Rather is one of the prime individuals in this regard. His career was built on the fact that he was in Dallas on that day. Every CBS special that would retell the Kennedy assassination story on anniversary dates would show Rather and showcase his understanding of what had happened.

All of the news organizations have been equally involved in keeping it alive over time. It's hard to look back at the Kennedy assassination without merging it with the story of the ascent of TV news. And it's not just TV news -- certainly newspapers, magazines -- you can be sure there is going to be some kind of retrospective at every anniversary date, and they will tell the story in the same way. You will rarely get a news organization that will change the accepted story in some fashion.

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So did the media fail the nation after the Kennedy assassination?

I think that journalism goes in cycles and sometimes we're more investigative and sometimes we're less. The large impulse following the Kennedy assassination was to help the nation. It was a real moment of community assistance. And that has its up side and its down side. I think the media didn't turn on its investigative ears soon enough. And this created a space for the independent media to go over the lapses in the official record.

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Do you think the assassination made Americans cynical?

Well... it's hard to pin so much on one event. It was the Sixties in general that caused social upheaval and uncertainty. It was Martin Luther King's assassination. It was Bobby Kennedy's assassination. There were numerous events that mired the nation in kind of a "question authority" movement. I think it's clear that we moved from a "before" moment to an "after" moment, that became worse and some might say is still worse.

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Many people talk about where they were when they heard that Kennedy had been shot. Is September 11, 2001 a similar cultural touchstone?

There's a tremendous comparison between the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. These were events that shook America to its core and I think the media didn't necessarily know what it was doing during both. I think after 9/11 we expected the media to become more critical, to become more sensitive to some of the aspects of realities elsewhere in the world that hadn't been covered -- and I think they didn't become more sensitive in that regard. Helping the country in times of crisis has to be accompanied by a real investigative glimpse of what's going on.

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What can we learn from looking at the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination?

If there were one lesson to be told about the Kennedy assassination and our collective memory of it, it's that the way the media told the story is part of a larger pattern. We are always getting stories about the media when we are getting stories about the events. They have their own personalities and their own agendas. They produce news in a subjective, individualistic fashion. We'd be better off if we could accept the partiality of that storytelling for what it is, rather than expecting the media to provide one story that is correct.

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