Picking up on a story first reported in JFK Facts, CNN reporter Jake Tapper aired dramatic conversations from the reconstituted Air Force Once tapes from November 22, 1963, capturing the real-time reaction of U.S. government officials as the news spreads that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
But Tapper’s otherwise compelling report also illuminates the unfortunate power of JFK denialism in major news organizations.
JFK denialism is the impulse to deny or avoid the troubling facts of JFK’s assassination in the service of presenting a reassuring narrative about the causes of the murder of the president.
(I experienced it first-hand when interviewed for the PBS show, “Cold Case JFK.”)
Tapper didn’t succumb to JFK denialism entirely. He recognized the Air Force One tapes story is “an unflinching look at history unfolding.” He rightly highlights the role of audio expert Ed Primeau in making the recording audible. And he let Primeau explain one of the most important facts about the Air Force One tape: It has been edited out of a longer tape that has never been heard.
“Whoever created the tapes had certain parts of the conversation they didn’t want anyone to hear,” Primeau says.
The location of the complete Air Force One tape is one of those unsolved mysteries that haunt the JFK story 50 years later.
How JFK denialism works
JFK denialism marred Tapper’s story in two places.
Tapper consciously avoided mentioning the central role of JFK researcher Bill Kelly in finding the story. It was Kelly, a dogged JFK researcher, who peddles no conspiracy theory, who gave Primeau a new version of the Air Force One that surfaced earlier this year, along with a previous different, shorter version found in the LBJ Library in Texas and suggested he combine them.
On the air Tapper said, “Primeau was tasked with remastering and piecing together the tape with older incomplete copies,”
Note the passive voice “was tasked.” Tapper knew that Primeau had been given the tape by someone and he must have known it was Kelly. In fact, Primeau volunteered to work on the tape without charge because of his interest in the JFK assassination story, a fact also elided in Tapper’s script. Primeau fully credits Kelly with developing the transcript and making the enhanced tape possible. But Tapper couldn’t bring himself to say so on the air. His choice of words artfully avoided giving credit where credit was due.
In fact, Kelly was the first to write about the historical importance of the Air Force One tapes on his blog JFK Countercoup. He obtained a copy of the new recording and persuaded Primeau, a national known audio expert who analyzed recording in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, to apply his technical skills to enhance it. Kelly was the first to present the combined and enhanced tape publicly at the Wecht Institute’s JFK conference at Dusquesne University last month.
Tapper, a good reporter, must have known something of the genesis of the story. I wrote about Kelly’s presentation on JFK Facts last month and then published an interview with Primeau. The story was picked up by Julie Hinds of the Detroit Free Press whose article was republished in USA Today.
Its hard to avoid concluding that Tapper scanted Kelly’s role because he was seeking to avoid the dreaded label of “conspiracy theorist” as he reported the story. Instead of crediting Kelly, he enlisted anti-conspiracist professor John McAdams of Marquette University to comment.
McAdams has no expertise in audio forensics or even in audio recordings from the Kennedy era but he is the go-to guy for reporters in search of reassuring sound bites that the government long ago solved the crime of who killed JFK. Quoting McAdams inoculated Tapper from the conspiratorial virus.
If Tapper had credited Kelly (who thinks JFK was killed by his enemies) the inclusion of McAdams might be justified as balance. But to consciously omit Kelly and then include the predictable McAdams was the very opposite of balance.
The problem isn’t that Tapper is parroting the government line. He’s a good reporter and I assume he reached his conclusions about JFK sincerely. The problem is that in the process of protecting himself from an irrational elite media taboo about conspiracy, he spared his audience from having to think about the implications of Primeau’s very incisive observation:
“Whoever created the tapes had certain parts of the conversation they didn’t want anyone to hear.”
This is the importance of the (edited) Air Force One tapes and why they are “the most important piece of JFK evidence to emerge in the past five years.” The complete unedited Air Force One tape from Nov. 22, 1963, if it still exists, is a foundational document of the JFK assassination story, a real-time account of how the U.S. military responded to the assassination of a sitting president. And it has never been heard in 50 years. That’s the story that made Tapper flinch.
Tapper’s discernible worry about being labelled a JFK “conspiracy theorist” prevented him from pushing the envelope. His timidity was no service to himself or his vast audience.