From "Who Killed Kennedy" to "The Shaw/Garrison Affair"
New York Times book review morphs between editions
(image by New York Times)
After five decades, the New York Times remains a prime example of the failure of the press to deal carefully and honestly with the troubling issues raised by the assassination of President Kennedy and the multiple investigations that followed.
As the 50 th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination rapidly approaches and the major media heat up the atmosphere with bizarre, trivial, sensational, and too often misleading stories, it may be helpful to reprise a slice of the coverage. The place to begin is with the Times itself, the nation's leading newspaper, proudly proclaiming on its masthead: "All the News That's Fit to Print."
Students of the assassination have long been familiar with the reputation of the Times regarding its coverage. Long before the Warren Commission issued its official report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, the Times set about to pre-sell the public on that outcome . For example, on June 1, 1964, only two months after the Warren Commission had begun its work, the Times carried an exclusive front page report, "Panel to Reject Theories of Plot In Kennedy's Death." It was a virtual preview of the Warren Report four months before it was published. The Times went on to publish the entire Warren Report as a special supplement to the newspaper, along with effusive praise for the Commission's work on the editorial pages. This was supplemented by articles and columns written by influential and respected Times' journalists who could not possibly have read the report by then, much less it's the 26 volumes of "supporting evidence," which would not be released for another nine months. The Times went on to publish its own editions of the Warren Report in hard and soft-bound versions, and later also published a carefully edited volume, " The Witnesses " which was representing to "highlights" from the 26 volumes of testimony and exhibits. In reality it was skillfully edited to eliminate inconvenient testimony and evidence that conflicted with the Commission's conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald had been the single, lone, assassin of President Kennedy.
A most ominous sign of the lengths to which the Times was prepared to go to avoid raising troubling questions about the assassination was its review by John Leonard of two books which dealt with the trial of Clay Shaw, brought by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. The books were James Kirkwood's " American Grotesque " and Jim Garrison's " A Heritage of Stone ." Both explored the trial of Clay Shaw for conspiracy to murder President Kennedy, and they evidenced completely opposing views on the subjects of Kennedy's assassination and Shaw's trial.
In its early edition on December 1, 1970, the Times ran Mr. Leonard's review of both books, and it was favorable to D.A. Garrison, insofar as it raised disturbing questions about the official version of the assassination. This review was quickly withdrawn and replaced by a version that totally changed its meaning and intent. There may not be another instance where the Times not only altered, but actually fabricated, a book review without informing the by-lined reviewer.
The day the review was published, I was working as a volunteer with Bernard ("Bud") Fensterwald's Committee to Investigate Assassinations (CTIA). I read Mr. Leonard's original review entitled "Who Killed Kennedy?" and so happened to be the person who uncovered this deeply troubling episode. The original review made clear that notwithstanding "American Grotesque " had exonerated Mr. Shaw of complicity in the President's assassination, Mr. Kirkwood did not disprove the merits of Mr. Garrison's claims about the assassination to Mr. Leonard's satisfaction.
After initially summarizing Mr. Kirkwood's book, Leonard turned to Garrison's contention that "Kennedy's assassination can only be explained by a "model' that pins the murder on the Central Intelligence Agency. The C.I.A. could have engineered Dallas in behalf of the military-intelligence-industrial complex that feared the President's disposition towards detente with the Russians." Leonard then noted that "Garrison nowhere in his book mentions Clay Shaw (an ethically required and commendable omission since Garrison was then prosecuting Shaw for perjury) or the botch his office made of Shaw's prosecution. . . ." Leonard follows this by asserting that Garrison "is, however, heavy on all the other characters who have become familiar to us via late-night talk shows on television. And he insists that the Warren Commission, the executive branch of the government, some members of the Dallas Police Department, the pathologists at Bethesda who performed the second Kennedy autopsy and many, many others must have known they were lying to the American public."
At this point Leonard's review contained a sub-caption -- "Mysteries Persist" --above the final two paragraphs.
The first two sentences indicated Leonard's resistance to Garrison's forceful and uncompromising attack on the official explanation of Kennedy's assassination:
Frankly, I prefer to believe that the Warren Commission did a poor job, rather than a dishonest one. I like to think Mr. Garrison invented monsters to explain incompetence.
Then Leonard proceeded with a lengthy recital of problems with the theory of the case adopted by the government and the mass media. He finished with a powerful conclusion:
But until somebody explains why two autopsies came to two different conclusions about the President's wounds, why the limousine was washed out and rebuilt without investigation, why certain witnesses near the "Grassy Knoll" were never called to testify before the Commission, why we were all so eager to buy Oswald's brilliant marksmanship in split seconds, why no one inquired into Jack Ruby's relationship into a staggering variety of strange people, why a "loner" like Oswald always had friends and could always get a passport -- who can blame the Garrison guerillas for fantasizing?
Something stinks about this whole affair. "A Heritage of Stone" rehashes the smelliness; the recipe is as unappetizing as our doubts about the official version of what happened. (Would then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy have endured his brother's murder in silence? Was John Kennedy quite so liberated from cold war cliches as Mr. Garrison maintains?) But the stench is there and clings to each of us. Why were Kennedy's neck organs not examined at Bethesda for evidence of a frontal shot? Why was his body whisked away to Washington before the legally required Texas inquest? Why? .
It was exciting that a major newspaper had at last raised some of the questions that were troubling to many of us.
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