The Kennedy Assassination, boomers, and TV journalism

November 22, 2013
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Among the literature surrounding the assassination of JFK and its establishment as a cultural hallmark for baby-boomers, Barbie Zelizer’s Covering the Body occupies a unique space. For these boomers, coming of age on the cusp of resurgent neoliberalism, our then-burgeoning involvement in Vietnam, the rise of televised mass media, and an engulfment in social protests that attempted (some successfully) to engender change in the struggle for civil, racial, and gender rights, JFK’s assassination was and remains a memento mori for all sorts of abandoned ideals, fraught causes, would-be and could-be scenarios, as well as a dark reminder of both whispered conspiracies and also how acts of violence distort our desire for meaning in a randomized universe. Anyhow: I teach conspiracy in the context of an art school as a nostalgia-driven metanarrative and secular form of maximalist knowing, something akin to Wallace Stevens’s sense of a “supreme fiction,” mixed with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notions of paranoid and reparative readings. Conspiracy theory—the cultural circulation of doubt that surrounds determinate events and indeterminate context—lets us perform a profound and manic kind of grief-work about the systems that fail to position us in knowing and trusting relation to them. With regard to the Kennedy assassination, this work embodies something closer to the German concept of Sehnsucht—a deep attraction to unfilled expectation; unmet desire; and an insatiable lust for history as a form of progress, rather than a random series of events generated by our dialectical engagement with the past, which produces the unstable footing of our present. That said, I’ve read a lot of these assassination-themed books, and many that engage with 11/22/63’s relationship to visual and media culture. What Zelizer had to say about how the assassination triggered American TV journalism’s ability to embody and legitimize itself is bang-on; the below excerpts from the book’s opening touch upon that:

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The Kennedy Assassination: A Critical Incident in Collective Memory

Critical incidents are what Claude Lévi-Strauss once called “hot moments,” moments or events through which a society or culture assesses its significance. Coining the term in a discussion of decision-making processes in media organizations, George Gerbner allowed that critical incidents give members of organizations a way to defuse challenges to recognized authority. When employed discursively, the term critical incidents refers to those moments by means of which people air, challenge, and negotiate their own standards of action. In this view, collective memories pivot on discussions of some kind of critical incident. For journalists, critical incidents suggest a way of attending to moments that are important to the continued well-being of the journalistic community. Critical incidents uphold the importance of discourse and narrative in shaping the community over time.

The Kennedy assassination can be seen as a critical incident for the US media. It was a turning point in the evolution of American journalistic practice not only because it called for the rapid relay of information during a time of crisis, but also because it legitimated televised journalism as a mediator of national public experience. The immediate demand for journalistic expertise and eyewitness testimony that characterized this event caused the public to rely on journalists for its clarification. Journalists went beyond familiar practices to cover the events of President Kennedy’s death, improvising within the configuration of different circumstances and new technologies to meet ongoing demands for information. Ever since, journalists have used the event as a benchmark in their discussions of appropriate journalistic practice. In other words, the Kennedy assassination has evolved into a critical incident against which journalists test their own standards of action. They use it to discuss, challenge, and negotiate the boundaries of appropriate journalistic practice.

Central to retellings of the events of Kennedy’s death are pictorial repetitions of such key images as the shootings of Kennedy and of Lee Harvey Oswald, Caroline Kennedy and her mother kneeling beside the eternal flame, and the riderless horse. These moments—captured by the media in various forms—have been replayed as markers of the nation’s collective memory each time the story of Kennedy’s death is recounted. Narrative brings these images together in meaningful ways, lending unity, temporal and spatial sequencing, and form. Narratives that persist today bear collective authority. Equally important, they have lent stature to the people who inscribed them in collective consciousness. As Ulric Neisser observed in his discussion of “flashbulb memories”: “Memories become flashbulbs primarily through the significance that is attached to them afterwards: Later that day, the next day, and in subsequent months and years. What requires explanation is the long endurance (of the memory).” Remembering the assassination, and shaping how the public remembers it, have thus come to be regarded by American journalists as strategic accomplishments.

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The Assassination as Critical Incident

The Kennedy assassination was positioned squarely in the middle of a process by which television was recognized as a legitimate medium of news transmission. Television journalism was said to have grown up in Dallas, “for never before had it faced such a story with so much of the responsibility for telling it.” That journalists themselves saw the fates of Kennedy and television as intertwined underscored the quest for legitimation in both arenas. It is significant that figures in the television industry, particularly television journalists, regarded Kennedy as a midwife to their own birth. A special edition of Broadcasting magazine, published the week after the assassination, included a section entitled “The Dimension JFK Added to Television.” It went as follows:

From the Great Debates where America first saw this young man to the TV close-up of a US President telling the American people we were about to blockade Cuba and might even go further, he took radio and television off the second team and made them peers of the older print media. Electronic journalism and its newsmen grew in stature by leaps and bounds. . . . The medium needed no further assurance of its place in society than the President’s exclusive interviews with CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Members of the journalistic community felt that Kennedy’s interest had engendered the broadcasting industry’s growth and had enhanced journalists’ professional legitimacy. Such a view was apparent in eulogies for the president, which were printed in trade publications under titles like “Kennedy Retained Newsman’s Outlook.”

All of this cast the assassination coverage against a larger backdrop of legitimating the American media. Holding television news responsible for communicating the tragedy supported larger discourses about the authority of journalists at the same time as it underscored the value of television news. The public’s exposure to the assassination was made possible by television, and to a large degree TV technology was hailed for providing the nation’s memories of the event.

The legitimation of television journalists was construed as having been gradual but certain. Like other enterprises of the decade, legitimation was seen as assisted by self-reflexive narratives that addressed the shifting boundaries of cultural authority and definitions of professionalism, changing consensus about what was important, and a recognition of the increased relevance of history in everyday life. Chroniclers of the decade therefore adjusted their narratives—about the sixties, about Kennedy’s administration, and about the legitimation of television news—until similar notions figured in all. In telling and retelling tales of the assassination, journalists invoked a context that underscored the function of history and historical events for professional legitimation.

This is not to say that all professionals become historians, only that more direct access to historic events influenced how professionals determined their boundaries of appropriate practice. Circumstances made it easier for journalists to borrow from history in their attempts at self-legitimation. Journalists saw themselves taking on expanded roles of cultural authority, and acting in new and different ways as social, political, and ultimately historical arbiters. They perpetuated memories of the assassination in a way that made sense of ongoing issues about the time, the profession, and the emerging technologies with which they told their stories.

All of this directly affected the way in which coverage of the Kennedy assassination would be retold by the media. Most reconstructions of the sixties linked narratives about television journalism with narratives about the Kennedy administration, a tie that was torn asunder with the president’s assassination. In an ironic twist, Kennedy’s death fueled the concerns and energies of the era’s observers, offering them a way to debate timely issues of authority, power, connectedness, and historical relevance. His death was used by journalists to legitimate television, so that the medium that had served him best in life continued to serve him in death.

The Kennedy assassination thereby became one stage on which journalists played out their legitimation as professionals. It provided the background for the movement of television journalists from the ranks of outsiders to “central players.” In this way, it was able to serve as a critical incident for journalism professionals, through which they would evaluate, challenge, and negotiate consensual notions about what it meant to be a journalist.

To read more about Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory, click here.

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