The re-broadcast of National Geographic’s JFK documentary, The Lost Bullet, in Canada last weekend is another reminder of how stilted and weird the mainstream media discussion of JFK assassination is. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I won’t comment on the particulars of its thesis.
But the film’s not-terribly relevant point illuminates a curious phenomenon: how the obsession with conspiracy distorts, defines and limits the editorial vision of news organizations. It is a species of un-journalism.
The film, based on a 2007 piece by Max Holland and Johann Rush, argues that accused assassin Lee Oswald fired a shot much earlier than anyone ever contended. The problem is not just that very little evidence supports this claim and a great deal refutes it. (Harsh criticisms from pro-conspiracy writer Jim DiEugenio and anti-conspiracy Dale Myers expose the many problems with Holland’s theory.) The problem is not just that Holland declines to answer questions from other JFK scholars about his evidence.
The larger problem is that National Geographic — and now the CBC — have abandoned the usual journalistic approach to popular history, which is to report signficant new information and then put it in context. This is how news organizations report on developments in World War II history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the secret history of the Iraq war, the Holocaust, the death of Princess Diana, the Cuban missile crisis, and other topics of interest.
When it comes to the JFK assassination story, however, North American news organizations adopt a different standard, one that is oddly fixated on confirming or refuting conspiracy theories.
Wittingly or unwittlingly, this approach removes the JFK assassination story from its emerging historical context. Holland’s adherence to the Warren Commission’s theory, combined with a revisionist take on the gunfire in Dealey Plaza, incorporates little from the mass of new evidence about JFK’s assasination that has emerged from the records declassified by the Assassination Records Review Board since the late 1990s.
That body of evidence, by any dispassionate assessment, complicates the enduring portrait of Oswald as a “lone nut.”
Yet NatGeo and Holland have nothing to say about it. Nothing about John Newman’s findings about the CIA’s intensive intelligence gathering on Oswald from 1959 to 1963. They do not deal with Bill Simpich’s research into how Oswald’s skillful “defection” to the Soviet Union via Helsinki concided with the CIA’s REDCAP and REDSKIN programs, which sought to exploit defectors for intelligence advantage. They nothing to say one way or the other about historian David Kaiser’s revelation that the FBI had targeted the Fair Play for Cuba Committee for disruption at the same time that Oswald launched his one-man chapter of the group in New Orleans. They are innocently ignorant of James Douglass’s excavation of the murderous conspiracies envisioned by Operation Northwoods.
Instead NatGeo and the CBC adopt the self-serving binary conceptualization of the JFK story that goes like this: Can JFK “conspiracy theorists” identify any one individual who is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy to murder the president?
If they can’t, then (here comes the non-sequitir) there could not have been a conspiracy to kill the president.
Therefore, the mainstream journalist should confine is or her JFK journalism to finding new facts to illuminate the Warren Commission’s old theory.
On this crabbed venture, NatGeo turned to Holland who (like Vince Bugliosi and Gerald Posner and David Belin) has found a happy niche as the reassuring expert who spares senior editors and the audience the burden making having to make sense of the new evidence on their own — without reference to conspiracy (or anti-conspiracy) theories.
The problem with NatGeo’s approach is not that it is anti-conspiratorial. It is anti-journalistic, which is one reason why so few people find it credible.