DECEPTION AND DECEIT: MEDIA COVERAGE OF JFK’S ASSASSINATION
Peter R. Whitmey
Nov. 4, 2003
A commonly used UPI photo was selected by the Vancouver Sun to accompany an excerpt from columnist George Fetherling’s reference book on assassinations (A Biographical Dictionary Of The World’s Assassins), which appeared in the April 12, 2001 edition (“By Blade, Bullet, and Bomb”). This particular photo was part of the FBI’s initial investigation of the tragic events of November 22, 1963, surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. The photo was taken from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository through a four-power telescopic gun sight, showing a light-colored convertible, with two people in the front seat and two in the back. According to the caption below the photo, this was “approximately what John F. Kennedy’s assassin saw…when the first shot was fired.”
However, the vehicle used by the FBI was only a four-seater, unlike the presidential limousine, which had two smaller jump seats installed, slightly lower in height, between the front and back row, where Governor Connally and his wife sat. Since JFK’s own car was part of the evidence being examined, it could not be used for the reenactment, but presumably the FBI felt that the vehicle they used was good enough. For some reason, they also did not appear to wonder what kind of view of both Kennedy and Connally the assassin really had from his location, given the fact that a large tree in full bloom initially obscured his view as the Lincoln convertible drove down Elm St. after making a sharp turn off Houston St. In addition, a Cadillac convertible was directly behind JFK’s vehicle, with Secret Service agents standing on the running boards on either side, which might also have impaired the assassin’s view momentarily.
As later divulged, the FBI was under orders from Assistant Attorney-General Nicholas Katzenbach (filling in for a grieving Robert Kennedy) to achieve several objectives, most important of which was to convince the public that Oswald was the lone assassin. However, there was an initial problem related to an apparent throat wound, which the Parkland Hospital doctors and nurses all believed was one of entry. It had been described by Dr. Carrico in a November 22 medical report as a “small penetrating wound” and by Dr. Perry to UPI as “an entrance wound below his Adam’s apple.” When Perry was asked by a St. Louis Dispatch reporter how Oswald could have fired that shot from above and behind the President, he speculated that possibly JFK had turned around in his seat in order to be struck in the throat.
It was easy to confirm or reject the Dallas doctor’s suggestion, since the assassination had been filmed in its entirety by local dressmaker, Abraham Zapruder, whose home movie was examined by both the Secret Service and the FBI on November 23, during negotiations that resulted in the sale of the film to LIFE magazine, with copies going to both agencies. A decision was made by TIME/LIFE not to allow the footage to be shown on television that weekend, likely because of the shocking image of JFK being struck in the head, along with the bizarre reaction of Jackie Kennedy, who began crawling onto the back of the vehicle, obviously in a state of panic, as she apparently attempted to retrieve part of her husband’s skull, while a Secret Service agent climbed onboard to protect her from possible further gunfire.
Instead, LIFE published small black and white frames in their next issue, and for the subsequent Memorial Edition, included several large color frames, none of which showed JFK turning around. Nevertheless, a junior reporter for LIFE (Paul Mandel, who died in 1965 at a young age) repeated Dr. Perry’s suggestion as fact, even though he had watched the Zapruder film (referred to as an “8 millimeter film” by the reporter). In his article dealing with some of the questions surrounding what had occurred in Dallas, he described how the film “shows the President turning his body far around to the right as he waves to someone in the crowd. His throat is exposed—towards the sniper’s nest—just before he clutches it.”
Although this statement was a total fabrication, LIFE has so far published Mandel’s article four times altogether, first in their Dec. 6, 1963, issue, followed by the Memorial Edition a week later, which was republished in November 1988 as well as November 2003 with no correction made, or any explanation provided to its readers. Nor was this blatant lie referred to in a book on the history of LIFE magazine published in the mid-1980s by a former editor, Loudon Wainwright (father of the singer). I spoke to Mr. Wainwright by phone in 1987 after reading his book, as well as to Richard Stolley, who had negotiated the Zapruder film purchase for TIME/LIFE, having written to both of them earlier, but neither one was aware of Mandel’s explanation. Clearly, the evidence suggested that JFK had been shot from at least two different directions, but the need to convince the general public that a lone assassin carried out the shooting was paramount.
NEWSWEEK magazine also reported on the FBI’s conclusions in their December 23, 1963 issue, with a similar summary, except for the suggestion that the throat wound was “perhaps an exit wound” (which months later would be the Warren Commission’s conclusion, as part of their “single bullet theory”). A week later both TIME and NEWSWEEK summarized the results of JFK’s autopsy, which had been conducted at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland on the night of November 22, even though it should have taken place at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. However, the body had been forcibly removed by the Secret Service from Parkland against the coroner’s wishes, allegedly at gunpoint. JFK’s back wound was initially described by the media as being “six inches below the collar line,” consistent with a bullet hole through both his jacket and his shirt. In addition, a Secret Service report written by one of the agents on the follow-up car stated: “I saw a shot hit the Boss about 4 inches down from the right shoulder.”
Both TIME and NEWSWEEK reported that the throat wound had been caused by the third shot, which had exploded upon impact, causing a fragment to be “deflected downward, passing through the throat,” a highly speculative suggestion indeed. NEWSWEEK added that a whole bullet found at Parkland “probably dropped out of the President’s body” while doctors were trying to save him. There was no mention of any missed shot, however, which had struck the sidewalk, with particles of concrete hitting a bystander in the cheek.
The Associated Press published a “coffee table” book entitled The Torch Is Passed just in time for Christmas, which included numerous and now-famous photos (such as the Altgens photo taken from in front of the motorcade as both JFK and Connally react to being shot), as well as a photo of the Kennedys and Gov. Connally sitting side-by-side, which must have confused many readers (taken earlier in the day during JFK’s visit to nearby Ft. Worth). The following statement was made in regard to the assassination itself:
“The President probably never heard the shot or knew what hit him. It was a piece of metal a little thinner than an ordinary pencil. It struck him in the back, penetrating two or three inches. He was struck as he turned to his right to wave. His hands snapped up reflexively to his throat. Wordlessly, he slumped over toward his wife, who was sitting on his left in the back seat.
“In the jumpseat ahead, Gov. John Connally turned and a second bullet caught him in the back, passing through, struck his right wrist and lodged in his thigh. The third and last shot hit the back of the President’s head about ear-level, as he was bowed forward.” No mention is made of an apparent entry wound in the throat, nor the missed shot, nor JFK’s rapid backward movement upon being hit in the head.
By the end of the year, with the formation of the Warren Commission, the combination of a missed shot, the rapidity of the two shots that struck JFK and Connally in their backs, the apparent throat wound and violent backwards movement of JFK after the head shot, all were creating a problem, if the entire shooting was to be pinned on Oswald . It should also be noted that the Dallas Police inventory list had only included two spent shells retrieved from the sixth floor and one of two photos taken at the scene, indeed, showed two casings. A third one, also found on the floor, but not forwarded to the FBI by the Dallas police chief for several days, had a dent in it, unlike the others.
In addition, the rifle was originally identified separately by two knowledgeable members of the Dallas Sheriff’s department as being a Mauser. One of the assistant sheriffs had, in fact, owned a rifle shop for many years. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the rifle was actually a much inferior Italian-made 1939 Mannlicher-Carcano. No more was said about the Mauser, but suspicion was growing in regard to the “evidence” being accumulated, as reflected in several magazine articles questioning what really transpired on Nov. 22, 1963 (especially a lengthy article written by lawyer and former New York State congressman Mark Lane, published in a British left-wing magazine after he was turned down by U.S. magazine publishers.)
From the moment shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, the goal of the U.S. government under President Johnson was to keep it simple, despite the complications that were developing. Oswald was a lone nut, and Jack Ruby was just a patriotic little man out for revenge. The possibility of a conspiracy was too frightening to consider, given the wide range of candidates: The USSR, Castro, right-wing extremists, the CIA, the Mafia, Texas oil men, anti-Castro groups, Army Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, or some combination of several or all of these hostile groups. A concerted effort was made to show how easy it was for Oswald to have killed Kennedy and wounded Connally, despite the fact that he had no clear motive and adamantly denied being involved shortly before his death, referring to himself as “just a patsy.” All that time Oswald had no legal counsel.
The Saturday Evening Post included an interview with Dr. Perry, in which he described the throat wound, in their Dec. 14, 1963, issue. Also included was an article (“The Assassin”) written by Ben Bagdigian (who has become an expert on the media as a professor at U.C. Berkeley), which included a remarkable photo of its own. The caption indicated that it was taken “from the same building where Oswald lay in ambush” and that “a telescopic lens reconstructs an approximation of what the killer saw at the moment of tragedy.” However, it is obvious upon examination that the photo was actually taken from the Dal-Tex building across the street, and from a much lower floor. In the right-hand corner of the large photo can be seen part of the TSBD’s façade at ground-level. I wrote to Professor Bagdigian in 1989 and he stated in a short reply that his report “was [actually] written within 36 hours of the assassination. It must be obvious that it was based solely on what was publicly available at that moment. What has transpired since that time is far more complex, some of which I am familiar with but far less than you seem to be.” No comment was made about the photo, and whether he knew about the blatant deception, however.
In February, 1964, TIME published a lengthy report featuring Marina Oswald on the cover, shortly after her testimony before the Warren Commission, which had just commenced investigating the assassination. Despite the fact that their report was not expected to be completed until the summer or early fall, TIME already had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was guilty and that there was no conspiracy or cover-up. No adequate explanation was given for the speed at which Oswald was able to fire his rifle, seemingly four times in a matter of six seconds, with exceptional accuracy, however.
Later that month, LIFE magazine published a lengthy biography of Oswald, featuring the famous “backyard” photo of Oswald, allegedly taken by his wife, showing Lee holding his rifle upright, with his pistol in a holster around his waist, while displaying two Communist magazines in his other hand. When shown this photo, Oswald insisted that his head had been inserted on someone else’s shoulders, and the location of the shadows strongly suggests that it had, indeed, been doctored. The general public was once again being manipulated to believe the “lone assassin” theory.
In May 1964, the Warren Commission decided to reenact the crime again, this time using a Secret Service Cadillac with jump seats, similar in size to JFK’s Lincoln convertible, the results of which were reported in the June 8 issue of U.S. News & World Report. A photo showed the Cadillac driving down Elm St. with both the TSBD and the nearby Dal-Tex building (where many critics believe several shots came from) in the background, as well as the large tree, whose branches reached the fourth floor of the TSBD. In addition, a photo of two agents posing as JFK and Connally were displayed, with white marks indicating the entry wounds. The wound in Kennedy’s back was still located several inches below his collar.
In early October 1964, LIFE chose to use the misleading FBI photo showing a four-seat vehicle in their extensive report on the Warren Commission’s findings, but by now a greatly revised account of the sequence of shots was included, contrary to previous media reports, clearly indicating that this photo was totally inadequate, given that only four occupants had been used in the FBI’s reenactment, not six. The magazine also obtained the services of Congressman Gerald Ford, one of the seven members of the Warren Commission (who a year later published his own book on the case).
In its conclusions, the Warren Commission was forced to deal with several restraints: the time element (between six and seven seconds), based on the movement of JFK and Connally in the Zapruder film (which ran at 18 frames per second); the partially-obscured view from the sixth floor, caused by a large tree in full bloom; the limitations of the rifle, which at best could be fired and reloaded manually in no less than 2.3 seconds; the actual location of JFK’s wounds, given the conflicting reports between Parkland Hospital and Bethesda Naval Hospital; the fact that the cheap, out-of-focus telescopic lens was mounted for a left-hand shot (an old photo of Oswald in the Marines showed he was a right-hand shot); and evidence of a missed shot, most likely the first, suggesting four, not three, shots.
Several eyewitnesses, most notably Jean Hill (“The Lady In Red”) and her friend Mary Moorman, had both described to NBC on November 22 having heard “four to six shots,” some of which they believed came from the grassy knoll. In addition, reporter Mary Woodward, who was standing on the north side of Elm St. with three colleagues from the Dallas Morning News (none of whom were asked to testify before the Warren Commission, including Mary), rushed back to the paper down the street and described in the “Women’s Section” “…an ear-shattering noise coming from behind us and a little to our right” (meaning the grassy knoll or the railroad yard behind it). Although the article was published the next morning, it had been written within a half-hour of the assassination, as Mary Woodward described years later in a 1983 newspaper report published in Albany, N.Y.
With the release of the Warren Report, no longer was the first shot described as a “back wound”, but was now a “neck wound”, despite what the Bethesda doctors had initially reported. After the autopsy had been completed, the doctors learned from a phone call to Parkland Hospital that the tracheotomy obscured a small throat wound about the circumference of a pencil. The Warren Commission decided that the wound in JFK’s throat was not an entrance wound after all, nor a fragment from the head shot, but an exit wound, despite the descriptions made by Dr. Perry and Dr. Carrico suggesting it was too small and neat to be anything but a wound of entry.
The so-called “magic bullet,” which had been found on a stretcher (most likely planted, possibly by Jack Ruby), was now reported as having been found on Connally’s stretcher, not Kennedy’s. Even though it was almost “pristine,” nevertheless the Warren Commission surmised that it had gone through JFK’s neck, exiting at his throat, entering Connally’s upper back, exiting at his chest, going through and shattering his right wrist (despite the fact that he was still able to hold his Stetson hat in his right hand), finally lodging in Connally’s left thigh.
After the governor died in 1993, the FBI actually requested permission from Mrs. Connally to exhume his body to determine once and for all how much metal was still embedded in his wrist and thigh, in order to either confirm or reject the “single bullet theory.” Unfortunately, Mrs. Connally refused to agree to an exhumation, even though her husband insisted all along that he was not hit by the first shot that had already hit the President, consistent with the Zapruder film, which Connally had not yet seen when first interviewed in the hospital.
Back in November 1966, the Connallys examined the Zapruder film for LIFE magazine (“A Matter of Reasonable Doubt”), concentrating on the validity of the “magic bullet” or “single bullet” theory (which had been developed by W.C. lawyer Arlen Specter, now a Republican senator, who will be debating this subject on November 22, 2003, at a Pittsburgh symposium.) If Connally was shot separately from JFK, as the FBI had initially assumed, that would mean at least two assassins were involved, given the brief time between the two hits (less than two seconds). In fact, none of the expert marksmen used by the Warren Commission had been able to achieve that amount of speed and accuracy in tests conducted with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.
It should also be pointed out that Oswald was not an expert with a rifle, having trained in electronics in the U.S. Marines before being stationed at a top secret Air Force base in Japan, where he helped monitor U-2 flights over Russia and China prior to “defecting” to the USSR upon his release from active duty in 1959 (while stationed in California). After being permitted to live in Russia, he was sent to work at a radio factory in Minsk, and appeared to be a pathetic shot when he went hunting on one occasion with friends.
After returning to the U.S. in 1962, there is no evidence that he spent time at any firing ranges either before or after purchasing a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle from a mail order sporting goods company in Chicago in the spring of 1963. There also is no evidence that he even picked up the rifle upon its arrival in Dallas, since by then it was mandatory to fill out a form to verify receipt of a mail order weapon and pay a $1.00 fee. There is no indication that he filled out such a form. When he did order the rifle, for some peculiar reason he chose not to also purchase 100 rounds of ammunition mentioned in the ad, which came with a free clip.
Following the assassination, the clip wasn’t listed in the Dallas Police inventory records, although it might have been attached to the rifle. A clip allegedly belonging to Oswald’s rifle is in the National Archives. As for the four rounds of ammunition he allegedly used (one live round was still in the chamber), they could not be traced to any sporting goods store in either the Dallas-Ft. Worth area or New Orleans. How Oswald acquired the bullets that struck JFK and Connally has never been ascertained to this day.
When LIFE magazine’s October 2, 1964, issue on the Warren Commission reached its seven million subscribers, which included key frames from the Zapruder film, readers saw for the first time frame 321, showing JFK being driven backwards and to his left, after he was struck in the head eight frames earlier (half a second). The description of this frame read: “The assassin’s shot struck the right rear portion of the President’s skull, causing a massive wound and snapping his head to one side.” In fact, JFK’s entire upper body was driven backwards and to the left side of the vehicle, as the Zapruder film clearly shows. On closer examination, Professor Josiah Thompson, who had previously been a consultant to LIFE magazine, discovered that JFK had actually been driven rapidly forward, covering only two frames of the Z-film, just prior to his head exploding, followed by a sudden reverse movement, strongly suggesting to Thompson that JFK had been hit from two directions almost simultaneously. This was discussed in detail in Thompson’s landmark book Six Seconds In Dallas, portions of which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1966, prior to publication in 1967.
JFK’s assistant press secretary had indicated on November 22 that a head shot entered from in front, by pointing to his right temple, consistent with the Dallas doctors’ and nurses’ description of a large EXIT wound in the back of JFK’s head. Regardless, the Warren Commission concluded that the head wound was fired from above and behind JFK, striking the back of his head. Since the “head snap” description and the sixth frame (frame 321) of the eight frames displayed by LIFE in their Oct. 2 report seemed to contradict the Warren Commission’s conclusions, immense pressure forced LIFE to reprint p. 42, with the following statement replacing the original: “The direction from which shots came was established by this picture taken an instant bullet struck the rear of the President’s head and passing through, caused the front part of his skull to explode forward.” This statement was completely the opposite of the original caption. Unfortunately, to confuse matters even more, a third edition was required, as someone on the staff of LIFE forgot to replace frame 321 with frame 313, showing JFK slumped forward, with brain matter rising above his head. The magazine has never admitted to these expensive revisions, but all three editions were on display at a JFK conference held in Sudbury, Ontario which I attended in August, 1993.
Despite the efforts of both the FBI and the Warren Commission to simplify the assassination, as reflected in the FBI photo referred to at the outset of this article, as well as the subsequent altered scenario related to the sequence and location of shots fired on November 22, 1963, a majority of Americans did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the deaths of President Kennedy and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. In the case of Tippit, he appeared to be killed by a hitman, based on the testimony of Jack Tatum before the HSCA in 1978, who had been previously too afraid to come forward. As for the attempted murder of Connally, the Warren Commission’s scenario suggested that the governor was accidentally hit.
According to Marina’s testimony, Lee Oswald quite admired JFK, undoubtedly much more than he admired Lyndon Johnson. In her fourth and last interview with the Warren Commission in early September 1963 (at a military base near Dallas), Marina suggested that perhaps her husband was planning to kill Connally, whom he had blamed for reducing his honorable discharge from the Marines to less-than-honorable, after he defected. The suggestion that Connally was the primary target had been reported by the Associated Press the day after the assassination, based on the release of Oswald’s hostile letter to Connally, which was written while he was still in the USSR.
Unbeknownst to Oswald until he returned to Texas, Connally had resigned as Secretary of the Navy in early 1962 when he decided to run for governor of Texas, and was replaced by his old friend from Ft. Worth, lawyer and banker Fred Korth. Coincidentally, Korth had represented Lee Oswald’s stepfather in divorce proceedings in 1948 against Marguerite Oswald, when Oswald was a young boy (Oswald’s own father died of a heart attack shortly before Lee was born), so it is conceivable that Oswald still felt a lot of anger toward Connally for encouraging JFK to appoint Korth as his replacement at the Department of the Navy.
This theory was revived in 1988 by author James Reston, Jr., in a biography about Connally, excerpts of which appeared as the cover story in TIME magazine for the 25th anniversary of the assassination under the heading “The Real Target?” In his analysis, Reston made reference to the allegations of a Dallas lawyer named Carroll Jarnegin, who had written a lengthy letter to the F.B.I. following the assassination in which he described overhearing Ruby and Oswald talking about the Chicago mob’s desire to get rid of Connally, while he was visiting the Carousel Club with his girlfriend. Given the murder of Oswald by a former Chicago hoodlum named Jack Ruby (aka Jacob Rubenstein), the possibility that the Mafia was involved in the assassination of JFK became a real possibility. The Vancouver Sun, in fact, ran a Canadian Press report on the front page of the November 27, 1963 issue under the ominous heading “Did Mafia Kill JFK?”
Although the Warren Commission downplayed Ruby’s alleged ties to organized crime, his former handyman, Curtis Laverne Craford (aka Larry Crafard) told me in 2001 that Ruby was a Mafia “wannabe.” He also revealed to me that he had been a hitman in the San Francisco area prior to coming to Dallas in the fall of 1963, following his release from the U.S. Army after only fourteen months, while stationed in West Germany. Craford hightailed it out of Dallas on Nov. 23 after having an argument over the phone with a sleep-deprived Ruby about the lack of dog food at the club. Curtis tried to convince me, as he had his second wife, that he left on November 22, when I first contacted him by mail in 1989 (and again when I met with him at his home in 2001), but he had told the FBI, the prosecutor at the Ruby trial, and the Warren Commission that he left around noon on Nov. 23, hitchhiking to his sister’s remote cabin in northern Michigan with only seven dollars in his pocket. He was subsequently interviewed and photographed by the local FBI office, having left a letter from a cousin in Michigan behind at the club.
The Warren Commission concluded in their report that his postassassination “peremptory decision to leave Dallas might be unusual for most persons, [but] such behavior does not appear to have been uncommon for him.” Consequently, they concluded that his departure had nothing to do with the assassination. Had they known about his previous connection to organized crime in San Francisco, they might have felt differently. Certainly Judge Burt Griffin, who, along with the late Leon Hubert, had interviewed Craford for the Warren Commission, has never felt that Craford told them everything he knew about his brief time in Dallas, despite the fact that his interview lasted three days and is over two hundred pages long (single-spaced) in the Warren Commission volumes.
During a Senate committee investigation in the mid-1970s, it was revealed that the CIA and the Mafia had teamed up in an effort to assassinate Fidel Castro, with a Howard Hughes associate, Robert Maheu, acting as the go-between during JFK’s administration. It has been suggested by numerous writers over the years that since Oswald appeared to be a strong supporter of Castro while living in New Orleans in 1963, JFK’s assassination might have been a means of getting rid of JFK while falsely implicating Castro, forcing the U.S. government under Lyndon Johnson to invade Cuba and overthrow the hated dictator once and for all. Of course, to the chagrin of the CIA, the Mafia, and the anti-Castro Cubans living in the U.S., no such action was taken; it was safer and simpler to just blame Oswald.
Although declassified documents have not yet revealed a conspiracy in the assassination of JFK, they have shown a great deal of interest in Oswald’s activities leading up to November 22, especially his mysterious trip to Mexico City, which was closely monitored by the CIA and the FBI (and showed evidence of an imposter being there too). Since the release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK in 1991, polls have consistently shown that over 80% of Americans do not believe the Warren Report. Here in Canada and around the world, the figure is likely even higher. Given the fact that the House Special Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded in 1979 that JFK was likely killed as a result of a conspiracy involving members of organized crime and possibly the military, and given all the scandals and cover-ups that have taken place in the past forty years in the U.S., why should we believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK? The evidence suggests otherwise, just as he claimed.
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