This cover of Time magazine from the 25th anniversary of JFK’s assassination illuminates the peculiar practices of journalists on President Kennedy’s death.
The normal journalistic aspiration is to report news facts on a subject of interest, sift out the less important and lead with the most important, and then put try to put the facts in context.
Of course, there is no such thing as “objectivity.” Journalists bring to bear the usual range of human passions and prejudices to the task. Editors must respond to the publishers who pay everyone’s salary. And news organizations must reach some kind of working relationship with government agencies in order to do their job in reporting on them. But the aspiration to overcome such compromises in service of reporting the news was — is — central to the journalistic enterprise
This Time magazine cover shows a team of highly paid journalism avoiding this aspiration.
It is true, there was a new book in 1988 that argued Lee Oswald was trying to kill Gov. Connally, but this book was not based on any new facts. Time was trying to meet reader interest in the JFK story without reporting new facts. The magazine’s editors sought to appeal to the public’s perennial dissatisfaction with the not-very-credible official story while avoiding the reasons for that dissatisfaction. To a public hungry for a more credible explanation of Kennedy’s death, the newsweekly offered an even less credible one: that a lone nut killed JFK — by accident. This idiosyncratic claim has never amounted to much; I’ve never met a historian, journalist, or informed citizen who believes it.
Why do otherwise skilled journalists would abandon their usual practices when it comes to the JFK story? I think the answer is that the alternative — continually reporting on the government’s lack of credibility on a central event in American history — is too destabilizing. Factual pursuit of the JFK story indicates a lack of faith in the efficacy and credibility of government that journalists, usually liberal in their outlook and politics, bring to the job.
A demonstrated willingness act on this lack of faith, in turns, undermines the implicit understanding between Washington-based news organizations and the federal government, especially national security agencies, that enables them to work together. For journalists, the less hazardous path is to avoid the intractable and disturbing mass of JFK facts in favor of coverage that reassures readers and sources alike that all is well.