Of last week’s 40th anniversary television specials on the Kennedy assassination, ABC News certainly had the most comprehensive coverage, looking piece by piece at the murder.
In the end, ABC’s "The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy" concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Anchored by Peter Jennings, the report didn’t reach that verdict carelessly.
On the other hand, Fox News had a relatively superficial examination of the conspiracy theories. Anchored by Greta Van Susteren, "JFK: Case Not Closed" decided that an audio recording of a Dallas policeman’s radio was convincing evidence that one shot came from the "grassy knoll" near street level.
Fox News based its "Case Not Closed" on a 1976-78 congressional investigation, which claimed to have made a thorough, scientific study of the police Dictabelt recording.
But, as ABC News revealed, that Nov. 22, 1963, Dictabelt wasn’t really a recording of the shots that killed Kennedy in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza. As investigators have known since 1982, the Dictabelt recorded police transmissions many seconds after Kennedy was shot, and could not have recorded the fatal gunfire.
Oddly enough, both the ABC and Fox reports confirmed the often-derided "single-bullet theory," developed by Arlen Specter for the official Warren Commission investigation to explain how Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally suffered so many wounds when only three shots were fired.
CNN reached no conclusions on Kennedy’s killer. One of its pieces, "JFK conspiracy theory 101: A lesson in ambiguity," was about a college course on critical thinking. Both CNN and PBS recounted how television news covered the assassination and its aftermath, and MSNBC gave us a pointless story on what Kennedy’s death means to today’s celebrities.
Meanwhile, the History Channel went off the deep end with a sloppy series attempting to prove that everyone, including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, plotted to kill Kennedy. "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" series was heavy on sinister music and light on facts.
How many unchallenged goofballs can you fit into a Kennedy assassination documentary? Ask the History Channel, which partially redeemed itself only with the much more enlightening Kennedy retrospective, "JFK: A Presidency Revealed." (Update: The History Channel in 2008 did a complete turn-around on the Kennedy assassination. On Nov. 23, 2008, the channel broadcast ABC's old "The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy.")
ABC News presented an assassination simulation prepared by computer animator Dale Myers, who had been studying Kennedy’s death for more than 25 years.
Reproducing the scene from measurements of Dealey Plaza and from the action captured in the Zapruder film and other films, Myers showed that if a bullet hit Kennedy in the neck, it also would have hit Connally in the back near his right arm pit, and that’s exactly where Connally was hit.
Kennedy and Connally were hit first at roughly the same height on their bodies by a bullet moving at a downward angle. The location of those wounds is explained in part by the fact that, in the back seat of the open limousine, Kennedy was sitting 3 inches higher than Connally, who was on a jump seat in front of, and 6 inches inboard (to the left) of, the president.
The computer model allowed Myers to trace the source of that single bullet directly back to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where deputy sheriffs found Oswald’s 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carchano rifle, mounted with a telescopic sight, and three empty cartridge cases.
The Fox News report also noted that, if Oswald’s single bullet didn’t pass through Kennedy’s neck and Connally’s back and right wrist before ending up in Connally’s left leg, it would take six more bullets to explain all of the wounds. No one heard more than three or four shots, and no one found evidence of more than three bullets.
ABC’s program also reminded viewers of the highly skeptical, even hysterically paranoid, political atmosphere around the 1976-78 congressional investigation, which eventually disagreed with the 1964 Warren Report.
In 1976, everything political was colored by the recent Watergate scandal, which drove President Nixon from office in 1974, and by the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975 with 50,000 Americans dead. The House Select Committee on Assassinations operated at a time of deep mistrust of government.
It was the Committee on Assassinations that, after a study of the Dallas police audio recording, declared in 1978 that the Dictabelt had recorded four shots – one more than Oswald was thought to have fired – including one shot from the grassy knoll. The committee concluded a second gunman probably was involved.
But Myers’ computer simulation for ABC News showed that the committee inaccurately estimated the location of the police officer whose radio transmissions were recorded. In addition, Officer H.B. McLain, the policeman with the open radio, had said repeatedly he was not in Dealey Plaza when the shots were fired.
In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences also rejected the evidence on which the congressional committee based its finding of conspiracy. The academy had re-examined the committee’s work and found that "reliable acoustic data do not support a conclusion that there was a second gunman."
The academy found that, at the time the Dictabelt recorded noises that were supposed to be gunshots, the device also recorded, in the police radio crosstalk, the words "Hold everything secure." The "Hold everything secure" order was not broadcast to police until many tens of seconds after Kennedy was shot. The Dictabelt obviously had not recorded the gunfire.
As ABC News put it, "Case closed. Those are not shots. The recording was made after the assassination."
* * *