Stupid JFK conspiracy theorists–and their mainstream enablers

Peter Mandel, author of children’s books, has a sad piece in the Huffington Post about how happy memories of his father who died when he was eight have been clouded by JFK conspiracy theorists. One can only sympathize. The sins of the father should never be visited upon the son.

Mandel’s father, Paul Mandel, was a Life magazine staff reporter who wrote an erroneous story about Abraham Zapruder’s film of JFK’s assassination in 1963. Some unprofessional writers jumped his mistake and published stupid, unsubstantiated claims about him and even stupider claims about his death from cancer in 1965. Megan Knuth usefully picks apart this rubbish at John McAdams’ JFK Web site.

But the fact remains that Paul Mandel, wittingly or unwittingly, did make a terrible mistake in print, reporting a falsehood as truth on one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century. Whatever his intentions, his misstatement was approved by his bosses at Life, apparently for the sake of reassuring the public that there was no conspiracy behind JFK’s death.  (If somebody has a better alternative explanation of why this mistake occurred, please email me here.) If that was their intention, they not only failed. They stoked more suspicion.

Of course, Life’s monumental error does not prove or justify stupid JFK conspiracy theories. Rather, it illuminates the perverse pop media culture that now dominates the telling of the JFK story 50 years later, a compact of mutual incomprehension that unites mainstream news organizations willing to shade (or ignore) the facts in service of the official theory of a “lone nut” with a conspiracy community too often willing to the same in service of their pet scenarios.

Peter Mandel’s Huffington Post piece shows how this dialog of the deaf now controls popular and individual understanding of the JFK assassination story–and that is perhaps the saddest thing of all.

What the Zapruder film showed

In the December 3, 1963 issue of Life, an article under the byline of Paul Mandel, reported the following about JFK’s assassination:

“The doctor said one bullet passed from back to front on the right side of the President’s head. But the other, the doctor reported, entered the President’s throat from the front and then lodged in his body. Since by this time the limousine was 50 yards past Oswald and the President’s back was turned almost directly to the sniper, it has been hard to understand how the bullet could enter the front of his throat. Hence the recurring guess that there was a second sniper somewhere else. But the 8mm film shows the President turning his body far around to the right as he waves to someone in the crowd. His throat is exposed–toward the sniper’s nest–just before he clutches it.” [emphasis added]

That last sentence is factually and demonstrably wrong, as any viewing of Zapruder’s film shows. The president did not turn around. His throat was not exposed to the gunman firing from behind the presidential motorcade. If Paul Mandel reviewed the film–and his colleague James Wagenvoord said he “definitely” did–then he badly misreported the facts. It gives me no pleasure to state this, and I don’t mean to disparage any of his other professional accomplishments. It is merely the truth that false statements appeared under his byline.

Peter Mandel is understandably upset with commentary about his father’s article that he found on unnamed JFK assassination Web sites:

*”His article [contained] a total fabrication . . . [and a] blatant lie.”

Here the unnamed conspiracy theorist’s assumes that because Paul Mandel wrote something that was inaccurate, he was guilty of intentional fabrication and deceit. This is asserted without bothering to include Mandel’s side of the story and scanting the possibility that there was some other explanation.

*”When Mandel discovered that the [Zapruder] film was inconsistent with the lone assassin theory, he either shaded the article to cover up a conspiracy or was coerced into doing so by the editor of Life.”

This is a more careful formulation, albeit speculative. Life magazine was a heavily edited publication so Paul Mandel’s article  was certainly approved by his superiors in the Time-Life organization. It is possible that Mandel’s editors, not Mandel, misstated the facts about the Zapruder’s film.

*”Because of Mandel’s knowledge of a conspiracy, he mysteriously died.”

In fact, there was nothing mysterious about Paul Mandel’s death. He died of melanoma in 1965. Another conspiracy theorist suggests that Paul Mandel’s article showed that he had advance knowledge of a conspiracy to kill JFK.  This is the sort of unsubstantiated innuendo that recurs too often in JFK discussions. Peter Mandel is right to loathe it.

Peter Mandel cannot explain his father’s mistaken description of the Zapruder film and does not dwell on it. All he says is,  “I had always thought that Life editors were serious pros, that fact-checkers there scoured every word.” That’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. But in the case of his father’s article Life’s fact-checkers failed and failed badly.

Peter Mandel can and should take consolation from that fact that his father’s mistake was not his alone. If Life magazine intended to reassure its readers by misleading them about  what the Zapruder film showed, they made a terrible mistake and the blame falls on the editorial leadership of the magazine, and not on any individual writer.

Paul Mandel did not obscure the story of the Zapruder film any more than his bosses. Far less, in fact. It was the corporate leadership of Time-Life Inc. that blocked public release of Zapruder’s film for more than a decade after JFK’s death. Today live footage of a presidential assassination would online in within hours, if not minutes. Back then the government of Lyndon Johnson and Time-Life colluded to prevent public viewing of Zapruder’s film for a dozen years after JFK’s death.

Zapruder’s film was first broadcast by Geraldo Rivera on ABC’s Good Morning America show in March 1975. By then Paul Mandel was dead and could not explain his description of it. That disservice to the truth cannot be blamed on JFK conspiracy theorists.





9 thoughts on “Stupid JFK conspiracy theorists–and their mainstream enablers”

  1. Jeff, you start out sensibly, and then go off the rails:

    >>> Whatever his intentions, his misstatement was approved by his bosses at Life, apparently for the sake of reassuring the public that there was no conspiracy behind JFK’s death. <<<

    You are assuming that they knew more than Mandel, and that they (working under a deadline) would have somehow recognized the need to vet Mandel on this point.

    The simple fact is that a lot of nonsense was published early on. Conspiracists seem to assume that there were no mistakes. Rather, everything was either the ugly truth slipping out (only to be "covered up" later), or some sort of evil disinformation plot.

    There is a lot of simple incompetence in the world, and journalists have their share (if not a lot more).

  2. The Parkland doctors, particularly Dr. Malcolm Perry, were coming under severe pressure to deny that the front entrance wound to JFK’s throat was in fact a front entrance wound to JFK’s throat.

    This was occurring within 18 hours of the JFK assassination; showing the government was hellbent on blaming all on Oswald immediately.

    Doug Horne:

    “What most of the public does not know—and what is detailed in my book, “Inside the Assassination Records Review Board,” is that late on the night of President Kennedy’s autopsy at Bethesda Naval hospital, Federal officials located at Bethesda began harrassing Dr. Perry on the telephone in an attempt to get him to change his mind about having seen an entry wound in the President’s throat earlier in the day. Nurse Audrey Bell told me in 1997 that Dr. Perry complained to her the next morning (on Saturday, November 23, 1963) that he had gotten almost no sleep the night before, because unnamed persons at Bethesda had been pressuring him on the telephone all night long to get him to change his opinion about the nature of the bullet wound in the throat, and to redescribe it as an exit, rather than an entrance.”

    1. Very similar to the way Jean Hill was treated by Dallas FBI-man Gordon Shanklin. For Shanklin to keep saying, in effect, “You didn’t see what you saw” is just plain rude. Hill was right there. Was Shanklin? I haven’t seen anything that says he was.

  3. Unfortunately, from my encounters, it seems to me that a majority of conspiracy researchers, amateur and professional, reinforce the image of “conspiracy nut” and discredit the whole enterprise.

    Morley, Newman, Summers, and a few others are the exceptions who seek and weigh evidence carefully. I think they’re on the right side of history, and I think it’s likely that there are still documents in government vaults that could provide the remaining pieces of the puzzle.

    But this attitude of “everything was faked, and everyone was in on it” is just not helpful. If you posit a conspiracy, you have to posit a grouping that would plausibly work together and trust each other in a very dangerous enterprise. And proving that through evidence is the challenge.

  4. The first person to misrepresent the Zapruder film was Mr. Zapruder while he was attempting to get his film developed. Mr. Zapruder told Jay Watson he began filming as JFK’s parade car was making the turn from Houston Street to Elm Street. No such turn is in the Zapruder home movie.

    Dan Rather’s CBS TV description of what he saw when he viewed the Zapruder movie on 25 November 1963 contained several errors, most notable being JFK’s head being thrown violently forward (it went backward), seeing the bullet strike on JBC’s white shirt (not visible), Jackie reaching out to grab the hand of a guard riding on the JFK car’s bumper (the guard ran to the bumper & wasn’t riding it)plus also describing JFK’s parade car making the turn from Houston St. onto Elm St. (not in the film).

    In a phone conversation to LBJ, Senator Russell described seeing JFK’s head resting on Jackie’s shoulder when he was shot in the head (JFK’s head never came into contact with his wife’s shoulder during the attack).

    Josiah Thompson recently has gone public with his belief that he misrepresented the headshot in his book, ‘Six Seconds In Dallas’ by measuring Zapruder’s camera movement and misrepresenting that as JFK head moving forward when it didn’t.

    There are videos viewable on all these events at the Tube.

    Over the past several years several people have posted statements that they have seen an ‘alternative version’ of the Zapruder film but have not posted copies or stills from it.

    Paul Mandel(probably his editors) wasn’t the first to make a mistake on the Z-film.

  5. Reminds me of another journalist,Dan Rather who had privately viewed the Zapruder film. He said that the President’s head moved forward after the fatal head shot.

  6. LIFE Magazine on 11/22/63, with RFK’s assistance, was preparing a story with a SWAT team of reporters that would have knocked LBJ out of the vice presidency and maybe into jail.

    LIFE Magazine on 11/24/63 was pretty much immediately beginning the cover up of the JFK assassination by buying the rights to the Zapruder Film, sitting on it, and hiding the fact that JFK’s head was getting knocked backward from a front right head kill shot.

    You ought to read what LIFE did after the Warren Report was released in September 1964 and they broke the plates on their presses twice to make 3 different issues to get the propaganda and photos just right.

    Read: “JFK: How the Media Assassinated the Real Story” By Robert Hennelly and Jerry Policoff. Scroll down to the section about LIFE.

    “But it is not the articles in that edition of Life that are so extraordinary, but the pictures, and the pains that were taken to rework them so they fit the Warren report perfectly. The October 2, 1964, issue underwent two major revisions after it hit the stands, expensive changes that required breaking and resetting plates twice, a highly unusual occurrence.”

  7. Certainly Mandel was wrong, but not necessarily lying, imo. One of the Z frames published in that issue was Z193, which shows JFK turned to his right “as he waves to someone in the crowd.”

    We all know that JFK wasn’t turned nearly far enough in Z193 to have been hit by a SN bullet, but I wonder if that was as obvious to Mandel then as it is to us now? Megan Knuth made a good point, I think, when she wrote that Mandel didn’t necessarily know “the layout of Dealey Plaza.” The TSBD isn’t visible in the film. WE know it’s far behind JFK, but can we be sure that Mandel understood that?

  8. By far the worst wrong here is not that a few conspiracy theorists went gone too far but that Life magazine clearly misrepresented the Zapruder film to support the official lone nut story.

    It is nearly impossible to believe a mistake of that magnitude was an honest journalistic mistake. It was either a blatant lie to deceive the public or a convenient lie to not ruffle feathers, but a lie is still a lie. Whether the deception lies at the doorstep of Paul Mandel is irrelevant. He was not a “lone writer” and would not make such a decision by himself.

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