When it comes to the biggest and most troubling stories of our time, corporate-owned and conventional public news outlets have a tendency to do an end run around the controversy and go straight to the most emotionally satisfying but least consequential aspects.
Take the assassination of the 35th president. Recently, the media were full of accounts on a book about condolence letters to Jackie K. Here’s the New York Times:
For a new book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation,” released by HarperCollins, Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian, culled through the archives. Now she has published about 250 letters, most for the first time, from people around the country who felt compelled to write to Mrs. Kennedy. The letters, many of them eloquent expressions of grief – from a priest in an Eskimo village, schoolchildren in Texas, a middle-class family in California, a widow in Pittsburgh, a Louisiana woman with a fourth-grade education – provide a window into Americans struggling with poverty, fighting for civil rights and trying to comfort themselves and others in the face of the president’s death. “The lights of the prison have gone out now,” wrote Stephen J. Hanrahan, Prisoner 85255, from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. “In this, the quiet time, I can’t help but feel, that my thoughts and the thoughts of my countrymen will ever reach out to that light on an Arlington hillside for sustenance. How far that little light throws his beam.”
It’s all very poignant, but what about the assassination itself? How much effort does The Times make to keep its readers posted on developments in research about how and why the President died? Well, almost none. The paper of record almost uniformly avoids covering what has been for many years a steady stream of investigative breakthroughs on the issue. And while it did find space for “Letters to Jackie,” it did not even mention, much less review, James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable, Jefferson Morley’s Our Man in Mexico, or Family of Secrets (by yours truly), nor dozens of other carefully-documented and footnoted books by skilled diggers that suggest the Warren Commission’s version of events is, well, totally wrong on virtually every count. (In the case of Morley, he was actually mentioned in a Times article, which began with the remarkable clause, “Is the Central Intelligence Agency covering up some dark secret about the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Probably not.” The article actually managed to refer to Morley as an author researching Kennedy’s death without ever citing the title or substance of Morley’s book. David Talbot’s Brothers was reviewed, but put up against a book by a prosecutor contending that Oswald acted alone.)
Not to pick on The Times-this is the norm with most U.S. news organizations, including public radio and television. The foreign media, however, is much less reticent about the JFK story. And therein lies the real question-Why can this country’s media establishment not touch this transcendent domestic tragedy and timeless mystery?
Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?
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