When “Today” Started
If you are old enough to clearly remember Friday, November 22, 1963 you can, undoubtedly, recount exactly where you were when you heard the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was in a 9th grade, 8th period Study Hall at Bay Shore Junior High School, supervised by English teacher Tom Ford. Mr. Ford was a “fun” teacher and widely known to engage in collegial hijinks with another English teacher, Harry Anderson. So, when Mr. Anderson came into our Study Hall and whispered into Mr. Ford’s ear, we all thought we were in store for one of their pranks. Mr. Anderson left, and Mr. Ford looked quite serious --- but we knew he could “fake” a “serious” look and then crack a joke so, when he looked at us and said “The President has been shot” we were sure this had to be a joke he and Harry had cooked up --- so we laughed. At that point he stood up and, looking very serious, raised his voice and said something like, “This is not funny. The President has been shot!” At that point we realized he was telling the truth and fell into a stunned silence.
The rest of that afternoon (after our first Freshman Dance was cancelled) was spent watching television in stunned silence as Walter Cronkite relayed the news as he got it regarding the assassination and ensuing manhunt for the culprit. As we know, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and charged with the murder and on Sunday, November 24th, he was murdered by Jack Ruby --- a murder my father and I watched on live t.v. (I remember my Dad, a former police officer, turning to me and saying, rather matter of factly, “We just witnessed a murder.”). And that’s really where our current situation --- regarding the “ 24/7 news cycle” and conspiracy theories --- begins.
In 1963 we consumed our news by way of newspapers, primarily. Yes, we had Walter Cronkite, Huntley & Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith on the “major” networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) but we were living in an early 20th century world that still relied on print media for information. Living in the NYC metro area, we had a plethora of choices regarding television --- CBS, NBC, ABC, WPIX, WNEW, WOR, and –starting around 1964 --- PBS. I clearly remember Channels 2,4,5,7, 9, 11, and 13 being available --- and all of them “signing off” at 1:00 a.m. (if not sooner) and leaving us with a monotonous droning signal and a “test pattern” on the screen. But JFK was shot on a Friday and the most immediate way to consume the story was provided by the minute-by-minute coverage television was providing. So much so that my Dad and I witnessed a murder as it happened.
It took some time before cable t.v. became accessible to the population (I first got in the early 1980’s) and it was Ted Turner’s “genius” (?) to create CNN (1980) and start the whole 24/7 wall-to-wall news delivery system. Now, of course, we take it for granted but in 1963 we got the first glimpse of what today’s world might be like --- where the “news” was so important that we had to have that t.v. on hour after hour to find out what was going on. JFK was shot; Oswald was captured and arrested; Oswald was shot, and Jack Ruby was arrested; JFK’s casket was led down Pennsylvania Avenue with a riderless horse (and boots, backwards in the stirrups); and we were there, watching it all as it happened on television. Sure, we could read about in the papers, but the immediacy of the televised coverage was the precursor of today. Remember, t.v. was still a relative new medium in 1963. Most of America had yet to get a color t.v. set and most the footage we see surrounding JFK (except the Zapruder film) is in black-and-white. We were still decades away from the 24/7 world, but that weekend clearly showed the appetite U.S. citizens had for watching the news.
The other part of the JFK assassination that has now become part of our warp-and-woof are conspiracy theories. From the outset, people wondered if Oswald could have acted alone --- could he really have gotten off three shots? Was he an expert marksman (his Marine records indicated “no”)? Who was Jack Ruby and why did he kill Oswald? Plus, the U.S. government did not seem forthcoming with information. The Warren Commission, charged with investigating the assassination, came under fire almost immediately --- and rightly so. Members of the Commission itself remained skeptical of its conclusions and, over the years, the conspiracy theories persisted. The idea that the CIA, anti-Castro groups, and the Mafia may have been connected to the assassination persist. Were shots fired from the Grassy Knoll? Certainly, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) stoked the conspiracy fires that already raged around the Kennedy assassination.
The point here is simple: the government can’t be trusted, we do not know the complete truth surrounding this momentous event, there were hints of cover up (the CIA, in particular) and intrigue that still surround the assassination --- and led to conspiracy theories ---setting the stage for the 21st century media-saturated society’s fertile conspiracy soil. Remember the conspiracies surrounding the collapse of the Twin Towers? That was a pale precursor to QAnon and MAGA-world conspiracies, but it illustrates how rich the soil was for planting crazy notions and belief in a “deep state” that was out to get you!
So, on this 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination, take a moment to realize, as Mark Twain noted, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Knowing history provides perspective, searching for facts and evidence will lead to honest understanding, and being a critical consumer of all the media we are exposed to is one of our most important duties as responsible citizens. Forewarned is forearmed.