Sunday, December 1, 2013

JFK Assassination Redux: The Best and the Worst of 50th Anniversary Coverage


No doubt you’re a bit burnt out on the Kennedy assassination case given the avalanche of documentary television specials, news stories, and Internet coverage we’ve been inundated with over the last few weeks.

No matter which side of the stockade fence you fall on there was some good stuff, some bad stuff, and some truly awful stuff served up to satisfy the general public’s appetite for all things JFK.

Now that you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, here’s one last look at the best and worst of November’s wall-to-wall coverage with some commentary from yours truly.

The best

The History Channel’s “Oswald: 48 Hours to Live” easily ranks with the best of the new shows produced specifically for the fiftieth anniversary. (Yes, I participated in the production, but believe me; I would have ranked it among the best anyway.)

Buried in the November 22nd, 10 p.m. time slot, director Anthony Giacchino’s masterful take on Oswald’s flight, arrest, and interrogation sessions still managed to draw close to one-million eyeballs from its prime demographic audience (plus many younger viewers) – something unheard of for a two-hour special these days. It outpaced the History’s Channel’s other special, “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide,” which was given the coveted prime-time slot, by nearly a quarter million viewers.

What made Giacchino’s work outstanding? It tackled a part of the assassination story that has been virtually ignored for the better part of 50 years – Oswald’s actions after the assassination, the police investigation that led to charges against the pro-Castro Marxist for the Kennedy and Tippit murders, and Oswald’s ultimate collision with Jack Ruby. Only David Wolper’s 1964 award-winning documentary “Four Days in November” had tackled this area previously.

Superb cinematography and fast paced editing created a sense of urgency that was palpable throughout the program. Giacchino cleverly avoided showing Oswald or Ruby’s faces, opting instead to show them only in archival footage. Don Kruizinga, who had an uncanny resemblance to his real-world counterpart, played Captain J. Will Fritz. Photographing the re-enactments at the actual locations lent an air of authenticity to the film. The varied voices of on-camera historical consultants Steve Gillon, Gary Mack, Dale Myers (yes, that’s me), Randy Roberts, and Larry Sneed provided texture and drove the story forward.

Oswald: 48 Hours to Live is a fine example of what can be accomplished on a shoe-string television budget – especially when in the capable hands of someone as accomplished at Giacchino. Purists will argue over small details that had to be cheated given the budget and unfortunately the program is not without a few minor flubs and one major flaw (Gillon erroneously describes Ruby entering the basement garage as police pull the armored car out). Still, the program does an excellent job of portraying the chronology of the Dallas police investigation that resulted in the collection of much of the damning evidence against Oswald (evidence that has stood the test of time), the obvious lies Oswald told behind closed doors, and Ruby’s vigilante actions at the moment of his chance encounter with Oswald on Sunday, November 24, 1963. If you don’t come away believing Oswald did it, you must’ve fallen asleep. Watch it again.

CNN’s “The Assassination of President Kennedy,” was another one of the better programs produced for the anniversary. It provided an excellent view of the assassination arc, covering the event itself, the government investigations, and the controversy. On-camera voice-overs included Dan Rather, Robert McNeil, Robert Caro, Bob Huffsaker, Vincent Bugliosi, Max Holland, J. Edward Epstein, Howard Willens, and more. The story is told with a composite of black and white and color archival footage (some of it familiar, much of it rarely seen). Highlights include LBJ strong-arming Senator Richard Russell into serving on the Warren Commission (“…You can serve with anybody for the good of America and you’re gonna do it. I can’t arrest you and I’m not gonna put the FBI on you, but you’re goddamn well gonna serve, I’ll tell you that!”), Penn Jones and Mark Lane (going head-to-head with David Susskind) on the Merv Griffin Show, musician David Crosby at a rock concert (“…When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of directions, from different guns. The story has been suppressed. Witnesses have been killed. And this is your country…”), Arlen Specter debating Mark Lane and other critics, clips from the four-part 1967 CBS News Inquiry, Jim Garrison on the Johnny Carson Show, Senator Russell Long decoding Oswald’s notebook to reveal Ruby’s telephone number (Yikes!), and much more. Very well done and extremely interesting – even for those of us who are very familiar with this subject.

National Geographic’s “JFK: The Final Hours,” narrated by actor Bill Paxton, was also easily one of the top-five best programs produced for the anniversary. The highlight of the program were the new ultra-crisp, high-definition transfers of footage we’re all familiar with but haven’t ever seen looking this good. What really comes across in this program – something that has rarely been explored this in-depth before – is the tremendous welcome the Kennedys received in Texas just before disaster struck at the very end of the motorcade – which emphasizes the tragedy of November 22nd. Visually stunning, very well done, and highly recommended.

PBS’s “JFK: One P.M. Central Standard Time,” narrated by George Clooney, was a surprisingly good look at the assassination and how CBS News, led by anchor Walter Cronkite, handled the coverage. Those old enough to remember Cronkite will find this program particularly touching, for no other reason than it reminds you of how television news used to be – and how much we’ve lost in this age of infotainment-style “news”.

The Smithsonian Channel’s “The Day Kennedy Died,” narrated by actor Kevin Spacey, also ranks among the better programs produced for the anniversary. Heavy with rare archival footage and new interviews with Clint Hill, Robert McClelland, Phyllis Hall, James Tague, Ruth Paine, Gene Boone, Johnny Brewer, James R. Leavelle, Hugh Aynesworth, Buell Wesley Frasier, Bob Jackson, and others.

PBS Nova’s “Cold Case: JFK” also ranks as one of the better programs produced in 2013. Ballistic experts Lucien C. Haag and son Michael provide the science in a program that features new ballistic tests and insights. Nothing radically new for anyone familiar with the case, but essential viewing for new-comers and those that still don’t quite get why the properties of the 6.5mm ammunition fired by Oswald explains the anomalies often seized on by conspiracy theorists as proof of multiple shooters. Well done, although much of Haag’s impressive presentation (which I saw at the 2013 annual meeting of the Northeastern Forensic Scientists Association in Cromwell, CT) was sidelined for comments from Clint Hill, G. Robert Blakey, and Josiah Thompson (who later called the show “rigged”). Much of the fatal head shot experiments the Haags performed were not included in the show. Too bad.

NBC’s “Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination,” hosted by former anchor Tom Brokaw, held the promise of telling the assassination story through the eyes of those who had been most effected by it but the program turned out to largely be a puff piece filled with film and political celebrities who had little direct connection with the assassination. There were insightful moments with principals like Buell Wesley Frasier, Ruth Hyde Paine, Johnny Calvin Brewer, Ray Hawkins, Marie Tippit, and others, but far too much time spent with Steven Spielberg, Chris Matthews, Mike Barnacle, Joe Biden, John Glenn, Bill Clinton, Robert DeNiro, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Tom Hanks, and the like. Highlights included former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin claiming that Marina Oswald was a plant, recruited by the KGB to gather information on her husband – a mission she reportedly never fulfilled; a glassy-eyed Oliver Stone telling Brokaw he still believes Oswald was completely innocent; and Tom Brokaw telling conspiracy theorist Robert Groden in Dealey Plaza, “There’s nothing about this that you believe.” Tip: Get the book, which includes the full interviews in prose form.

There were other shows that were also worthwhile viewing including, PBS’s “American Experience: JFK”; CBS’ “As It Happened: John F. Kennedy, 50 Years”; and TLC’s “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy.”

The mediocre

History Channel’s “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide,” was another newly produced fiftieth anniversary program featuring the on-camera voices of Max Holland, Vincent Bugliosi, Robert Groden, Gerald Posner, Jefferson Morley, Robert McNeil, Clint Hill, Bill Newman, John McAdams, Don Thomas, David Kaiser, G. Robert Blakey, and the general public. Based on a Topline consumer survey conducted for the A&E Networks, the program revealed some interesting results about what the public believes about the JFK assassination. The poll numbers show that 71% believe there was a conspiracy. However the survey also shows that 76% didn’t know that Oswald had attempted to defect to the Soviet Union, 67% didn’t know that Castro had publicly threatened Kennedy, 73 % didn’t know that multiple tests showed that Oswald’s rifle was capable of firing the shots, and 86% didn’t know Oswald had previously attempted to assassinate General Edwin A. Walker. It’s not hard to notice that the same percentage of people who believe in a conspiracy don’t really know the facts of the case. Many of the poll numbers were skewed (“…of conspiracy advocates, the percentage that believe…”) for presentation in the show. It would be interesting to see the original questions and survey results.

The worst

Not sure how I’d rank the worst of the lot, but here’s a sampling:

Reelz’s “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” and the follow-up discussion “JFK: Inside The Evidence,” hosted by Bill Curtis, seemed to get the most media play across the planet. The idea that a Secret Service agent accidently shot Kennedy and then the government covered it up is incredibly laughable. You gotta love the animated sequences presented in the show that claim to show the possibility of such a shot, but instead prove that such a shot would have been impossible given Kennedy’s true position in the car. The Curtis led discussion that followed was equally silly and represented an all new low for a Bill Curtis Production – if that’s possible. A colossal waste of time, but then everyone (accept the spectacularly uninformed) knew that going in. Ranking: Five Tums.

Fox News’s “50 Years of Questions: The JFK Assassination,” hosted by Bill Hemmer, was one of the more stomach-churning specials produced for the anniversary. Fox presented the 14-year-old “investigation” conducted by former Justice Department prosecutor John T. Orr as if it was new. I suffered through all of it, but found myself reaching for the remote control about ten minutes in. Ranking: Five Rolaids.

National Geographic’s “Killing Kennedy,” based on the Bill O’Reilly book of the same title and starring Rob Lowe as JFK, turned out to be a leaden, pulse-killing docu-drama about Oswald and Kennedy’s tangled fates. This made-for-TV movie proved once again that you cannot adequately and accurately tell this story in a two-hour slot. Even knowing what they weren’t showing (and I felt sorry for anyone trying to follow the story that didn’t know what they were missing), the story felt rushed and without substance. Boring beyond belief; the anti-thesis of Giacchino’s “Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.” Ranking: Five bottles of Pepto-Bismol.

The truly pitiful

The most disgusting display of modern-day journalism wasn’t a TV special at all, but rather, a news report broadcast on November 20, 2013, over WFAA-TV in Dallas, Texas, featuring the results of an “investigation” by Farris Rookstool III, a paid consultant to the television station’s fiftieth anniversary coverage who was billed as “the world’s leading expert on the assassination.”

Under the banner headline: “Wallet mystery from Officer Tippit’s murder settled 50 years later,” WFAA reporter Jason Whitely claimed that the only evidence linking Oswald to the Tippit murder were four shells and some witnesses – until now.

In an exclusive report, Whitely announced that “a new piece of evidence, the strongest yet tying Oswald to the murders,” had been uncovered during a two-year study by Rookstool.

What was this new evidence? Archival film footage shot by WFAA cameraman Ron Reiland at the Tippit murder scene shows officers handling a wallet that police later claimed was taken off of Lee Harvey Oswald after his arrest. The reality, according to the “world’s leading assassination expert,” is that Oswald’s wallet really was found at the Tippit murder scene.

“It’s been picked apart for decades,” Rookstool says on-camera, “but the tragedy of this is that no one has ever taken the due diligence of time to really put these pieces together until now.”

Whoa, daddy. Rookstool may be able to sell that load of shingles to the uninformed, but he knows damn well that the story that Oswald’s wallet was recovered at the Tippit scene was dissected, examined, and written about fourteen years ago in a book called, “With Malice: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Murder of Officer J.D. Tippit” (Oak Cliff Press, First Edition, 1998). I know – I’m the author.

The wallet story was subsequently updated in the second edition of With Malice, published in August, 2013 – a fact that Rookstool also knew about given the fact that he purchased a copy in October, a month prior to the WFAA broadcast.

And frankly, I’ve done much more than just talk and write about this particular episode of the Tippit murder – including within the pages of this blog (see, With Malice: The Tippit Murder 45 Years Later).

I’m the individual who initially drew attention to the existence of the WFAA news footage of the wallet, made the connection between the footage and a claim made by former FBI agent Bob Barrett (first published in fellow FBI agent Jim Hosty’s 1996 book Assignment: Oswald), informed both Hosty and Barrett of the films existence, and interviewed Barrett extensively in 1996 in an effort to substantiate his claim. Despite Barrett’s help, and that of several others, I was unable to reconcile his latter day claims with the contemporary record – including Barrett’s own reports.

Good Lord, I would have loved to have been able to prove that police found Oswald’s wallet at the Tippit murder scene! Are you kidding me? It would have been the centerpiece of my book. However, looking at the evidence, I could not in good faith sign off on something so contrary to the official record without definitive proof – no matter how good it sounded. And I had more than one set of eyeballs looking at the evidence with me. They weren’t convinced either. I know there are some people (maybe a lot of people) who would have played it differently. I’m not one of them.

“….no one has ever taken the due diligence of time to really put these pieces together until now.” Seriously?

What exactly has Rookstool added that is new to this story? Nothing he couldn’t have gotten out of With Malice over the last fourteen years. According to Rookstool’s “investigation”:
  • Bob Barrett claims that Captain W.R. Westbrook asked him about the names Oswald and Hidell while he was thumbing through the I.D.s of a wallet he was holding at the Tippit scene. Yes, we know. This is discussed at length on pages 287-304 (1998 edition) and on pages 349-368 (2013 edition) of With Malice.
  • A crime scene photograph depicting Tippit’s patrol car was autographed for Rookstool by Jim Leavelle, Bob Barrett, T.F. Bowley, Roy Nichols, and Kenneth H. Croy – who wrote: “First on the scene, recovered Oswald’s wallet there too.” Rookstool refers to Croy’s autograph as “the only written account” of the recovery of Oswald’s wallet at the scene. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call an autographed inscription a “written account,” but then I guess that’s just me. I did interview Croy in 2009 (he died in 2012) and wrote about his latter day claims which not only have many inconsistencies with his contemporary testimony, but is also at odds with Barrett’s account. This is also discussed at length on pages 356-358, 367-368 (2013 edition) of With Malice.
  • Marie Tippit is shown on-camera with Tippit’s black wallet, which is clearly different from the one seen in the 1963 news footage. Again, I wrote in 1998 that Tippit’s black billfold was on a list of personal possessions removed from his person after his death and while his revolver (left behind at the scene) was also on the list, I thought it highly unlikely – given interviews I conducted with multiple witnesses and fellow police officers – that it was Tippit’s black billfold being filmed by Ron Reiland, despite his claim that afternoon. Any doubts as to whether it was Tippit’s wallet were laid to rest in 2012 when I saw photographs of Tippit’s black billfold – a fact I discussed on page 364 (2013 edition) of With Malice.
  • Finally, Rookstool did an on-camera comparison between a frame from the archival WFAA news film – which was published on pages 293, 298 (1998 edition) and pages 355, 362 (2013 edition) of With Malice – and Oswald’s arrest wallet housed in the National Archives. Rookstool didn’t actually go to the National Archives, get permission to have the wallet pulled out of cold storage, and photograph it – as I did in 1996. Instead, he used the photograph I had taken of the wallet and subsequently published in the color plate section of the 1998 and 2013 editions of With Malice. More on that in a moment.
What did Rookstool find after comparing the images I had published in 1998 and again in 2013? Both wallets, he claimed, had “circular snaps, metal strips and – perhaps the biggest similarity – a zipper over the cash compartment.”
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was Oswald’s wallet,” Rookstool opined.
But wait, look again (especially at a first generation duplicate of the original 1963 videotape) – the wallet depicted in the archival WFAA newsfilm is much thinner and much more worn than Oswald’s arrest wallet, one of the principal reasons I was forced to reject the idea that the two wallets were the same. The other reason? The metal band on the photo compartment of Oswald’s arrest wallet does not go to the edge of the leather flap, nor is the leather flap square (it has rounded corners) - both characteristics decidedly unlike the wallet depicted in the WFAA newsfilm. Again, the trip made to the National Archives, the photographs taken at my direction, and the comparison I performed in 1996 are all discussed at length on pages 298-299 (1998 edition) and pages 361-363 (2013 edition) of With Malice.
As if to add insult to injury, Rookstool used – without permission - one of the many photographs I paid to have taken of Oswald’s arrest wallet at the National Archives (and which I subsequently published in With Malice) to support his contention in the WFAA broadcast report that the wallets were the same. The photograph he used is clearly captioned: “Author’s photo.” For the uninformed, that means I own it and hold the copyright.
Slapped across my photograph during the WFAA broadcast were the words: “Courtesy of Dale Myers.” Classy, huh?
Immediately after the report aired, I emailed both Rookstool and WFAA reporter Jason Whitely and asked for an explanation. Whitely promptly called me and explained that because it was a news broadcast, the Fair Use Law allowed newscasters to use my work without permission and that he, Whitely, was the one responsible for seeing that the “Courtesy of…” slug was placed on the photograph. He said he felt it was only fair to acknowledge that the photo was mine.
I explained to him that the fair thing to do would have been to ask for and get my permission to use the photograph - which is what “courtesy of” means. I also pointed out that the courtesy tag implied that I had been involved with Rookstool’s belated “investigation,” had granted my permission to use the photo, and sanctioned his conclusions – none of which was true.
Mr. Whitely apologized, adding that he could have handled it better.
As for Rookstool, he never bothered to respond to my email. No phone call, no nothing. Nice, huh?
It’s no secret that investigative journalism, as we once knew it, is dead. In this infotainment focused world, it’s far more important to engage the audience with a captivating story, take your bows, and get off the stage before anyone figures out what happened. News has become a circus side-show, complete with freaks and slick carnival barkers selling illusions to the suckers.
How does Rookstool address the conflicts between the official record and the recovery of an “Oswald” wallet at the Tippit shooting scene? According to Rookstool and Barrett, the official story is “hogwash” cooked up by police eager to hide the recovered wallet because “too many officers handled the crucial piece of evidence.” Huh?
Rookstool’s own account has the wallet recovered by Officer Croy and given to Captain Westbrook, who was in charge of the Tippit crime scene. How does that constitute too many officers? Not only is their explanation silly on its face, it doesn’t even begin to address all of the other problems that the contemporary record poses – problems I explored and discussed at length in With Malice.
Why would police hide the most damning evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald in the Tippit shooting? Why didn’t any of the reporters who were known to have been at the Tippit scene during the period in which the wallet was allegedly recovered report the discovery of Oswald’s wallet at the scene? What would be the advantage for the police to lie about removing Oswald’s wallet from his pocket after his arrest at the Texas Theater?
Anyone with a brain knows that if Oswald’s wallet had been found at the Tippit murder scene it would have been printed in every newspaper and broadcast on every radio and television station in America before the end of the day, Friday, November 22, 1963.
More important, it would have appeared in the contemporary report prepared by FBI agent Bob Barrett that day and would have been discussed in the testimony given by Officer Kenneth Croy before the Warren Commission in 1964. Instead, there is nothing.
Flashback to earlier this summer - I was informed that contrary to everything I had uncovered about the wallet story, due to my own investigative efforts over the last fourteen years, Farris Rookstool had found documentation that “proved” that Oswald’s wallet was indeed found at the Tippit shooting scene.
Naturally, I was interested in what he had found and asked to see “the documentation” but was told that Rookstool preferred to reveal it himself during an unnamed 50th anniversary broadcast. I attempted to contact Rookstool directly, but he refused to return my call.
Rookstool was told through an intermediary that I would be more than happy to include his “discovery” in the forthcoming second edition of With Malice, due to be published by late summer 2013, with full credit given where credit was due. My focus was on disseminating the truth about this puzzling episode no matter who discovered it.
Rookstool declined to accept my offer and later again refused to take my direct call to discuss the matter. You know the rest.
“….no one has ever taken the due diligence of time to really put these pieces together until now.” Seriously? [END]


Annette said...

I agree that the excellent program "Oswald: 48 Hours to Obfuscate"....oops...I'm being unkind here. Seriously, this program was the best of the bunch. I disagree slightly with Mr. Myers, however, on the question of Ruby robbing us of Oswald's eventual confession and/or revelations. I believe it's obvious that this repulsive narcissist would have played the court system like a fiddle. He would likely have been convicted and executed, but he wouldn't barf it up. He was too selfish and manipulative. Thus, I'm not all that grieved that the nightclub owner shot him. I don't agree with vigilante justice, but I don't really evince much sadness, either. That is a moral conundrum, and it isn't the first time I've pondered this sort of nuance.

Ah, yes, David Crosby. One of my fave-rave musicians from the sixties. Why is it that talented musicians think they can harbor pretensions to omnipotence? They can't - and he was probably so stoned back in the day (by his own admission) that his perceptions were amiss. Anyway, I was too young then and too old now to regard the aging rock star as infallible. (I don't even regard the Pope as unerring - not any longer.)

Yep - those conspiracy theories are fodder for the funnies. Except when they hurt people. That's why so many of the conspiracy cretins incur my ire. The Tippit family has been hurt by this - and let no one forget that. Then again, the theorists could be right. Yeah, and there could be giant yellow bullfrogs on Jupiter singing the Cuban national anthem from a grassy knoll...........

Paul C. said...

Thanks, Dale, for reviewing and commenting on the crunch of programs. I'll make a special effort to see the History Channel's "48 Hours to Live" program, it sounds excellent. Maybe they're seeking redemption for broadcasting "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" so often.

Steve said...

Thanks Dale, for exposing what a fraud Farris Rookstool is as "the world's leading expert on the assassination" and what a completely dishonest person he is in general, as far as the Kennedy assassination goes!

Unknown said...

Dale: just watched the 48 Hours to Live film, and it was outstanding. Thanks so much for both your participation, your recommendation and your years of work in the field. It'll be my recommended film for anyone interested in the Kennedy assassination from now on.

Hideji Okina said...

Today,few hours before.
Japan-tv on air “JFK: The Smoking Gun" as "new theory".

Tod Morrow said...

PBS’s “JFK: One PM Central Standard Time.”

Thanks for this wonderful summary of 50th anniversary specials. But I cannot agree with your praise for PBS’s “JFK: One PM Central Standard Time.” The film’s re-creations are downright hokey and unrealistic. But the thing that really ruins this documentary is its dishonest use of the “Dallas-City of Hate” narrative to give the false impression that Kennedy was assassinated by a Democrat-hating member of the John Birch Society rather than an avowed Marxist. Not once does this program identify Oswald as a Marxist, so that younger, less knowledgeable viewers will be left with the wrong impression.

The deception is intentional. Indeed, a number of recent assassination programs have made similar attempts to rewrite history through the same false insinuation. It is not surprising that PBS would choose Bill Hampton and Dan Rather, two of the most dishonest journalists of our time, to describe the background for the assassination. At the start of the program, Hampton and Rather go to great lengths to portray Dallas as the home of right wing extremism and anti-Kennedy sentiment without placing that background into context.

The proper context is that many if not most of the extremists in Dallas were actually Democrats. Texas was still a solidly Democrat State, but there was a split between liberal and conservative factions. The purpose of Kennedy’s trip to Texas was to heal those divisions. The suggestion by Rather and Hampton that Dallas was the home of anti-Democrat sentiment is an intentional lie.

Further context can be found in the irony that Kennedy received a massive and enthusiastic hero’s welcome in Dallas. Fears for Kennedy’s safety initially appeared to have been unfounded. There were no ugly incidents like the one involving Adlai Stevenson the previous month. Then everything changed when the President’s car turned the corner from Houston onto Elm and he was shot to death by a left wing Marxist, of all people. The documentary never provides this information, which means that Rather-Hampton’s false anti-Republican, City of Hate narrative becomes a non-sequitur injected into the program solely for partisan political purposes. The viewer is therefore left with the false impression that Kennedy was shot by a conservative Republican.

“JFK: One PM Central Standard Time.” is a poorly done, left wing propaganda piece. Sadly, this makes me yearn for the days of Walter Cronkite and honest journalism

Dale K. Myers said...

Thanks for your comments on the PBS program. While I don't specifically recall the details of the show broadcast 8-years ago, it's no secret that PBS tends to lean left with their programming, so I don't doubt the points you made. I probably was more enthralled and focused at the time on the archival footage of Cronkite in action than with what was being said. Without re-visiting the PBS program, I think we can both agree that spinning the historical narrative to make political points is a disgusting trend that seems to be gaining more traction these days. It's certainly no way to keep the general populace informed and educated.