Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Kennedy Assassination and the American Public

BRADLEY S. GREENBERG and EDWIN B. PARKER (Eds.). The Kennedy Assassination and the American Public: Social Communication in Crisis. Pp. xvi, 392. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1965. $8.95.

"But the central question," William L. Rivers argues in The Press and the Assassination, "is whether the best tradition of the press is good enough. ... Is it possible that the proud Age of Instant Communication sparks competition that debases journalism? " (pp. 56-60).

And the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) reporter Tom Pettit's virtual answer was the following: "People who watched the events in Dallas on television probably saw more than those of us who were there. Television almost always permits people to see things more perceptively than they could if they actually were at the scene of an event, because cameras and microphones create an extension of the senses" (p. 66). Perceptively is the key word.

Only in a media system, where sobriety almost always succumbs to instaneity, could sense impressions be confused with maturing judgment. Surely the evidence gathered in this volume of participant reports and research studies does not encourage belief in statements like, television held the nation together, and television came of age those four days in Dallas.

If anything, one leaves more skeptical than before-by, say, the ABC placement of its only mobile television camera at the county jail because the psychiatrist they consulted figured that scene more closely resembled the presidential assassination site! The social science coverage of our reactions to the assassination is uncomfortably analogous to the original media coverage: a triumph of massively assembled trivia over the "intuitive" good sense of an unconnable observer like Rivers.

A book like this makes a media consumer conclude that there is another "two-cultures" dichotomy deserving analysis: the subculture of communications organizations-with a diction and logic chillingly frenetic and self-congratulatory-and the subculture of communications research-given to arcane clarities like "attitudinal strategies" and relishing the prospect of infinite regress through multivariate analysis.

When the latter musters courage to judge the former, as in Ruth Leed Love's summary of ninety interviews with network news personnel involved in the black weekend, we are treated to "all the news that's fit to print is not necessarily fit to be seen" (p. 85) and "the norms and values that guide the news departments, then, are flexible and adaptable to the needs of the occasion" (p. 86). Surely, it did not take ninety interviews to arrive at these complacent bromides.

It is astonishing and depressing to see the most meticulous attention given to meaningless differences-percentage of those first learning the news by medium-yet no thoughtful speculation at all about how escalation of surface coverage of the news creates its own problems: that America 1963 reeled under an assassination so that television had to "hold it together" was mainly because broadcasting's flash reporting made it reel. And television does not appear to me to keep up with the changes its technological hubris unleashes.

Its massive siphoning off for aimless viewing year in and year out of the leisure that should be invested in liquidating our fast escalating social ills is not repaid by pseudo-philanthropic poses about nobly foregoing commercials every weekend a president is assassinated. The ideologues of broadcasting who praise these media for their survival potential-warning against tornadoes, calming the darkened during massive power blackouts-are not meeting criticism seriously.

And communication researchers who get lost in their own mazes of multiple causation are a hindrance rather than a help in easing an anti-intellectual, violence-prone culture through the strains of modernization. Books like this are no substitute for an elementary education into the nature of news and the dynamics of bias in the common school system.

Yet the communication research discipline neither creates such a curriculum to enlighten the consumer of news nor brings sanctions to bear on the producers of news. It is bemused by its compulsion to be a social science, supposedly free of sticky existential influences. "Given the current state of the art," the editors of this collection concede, "the measurement of such variables as grief, anxiety, rededication, and political commitment leaves room for considerable improvement" (p. 378).

My flinch at the word "art" in this context left me with considerable room for improvisation: What would happen if the media personnel and communication researchers got a foundation to fund a symposium to evaluate their separate performances after having carefully pondered, reread, even savored the recent book of-mostly short-poems reacting to the events of the same weekend. I wonder.

They might even understand why Negroes were so agitated by the event-even "on the grief index developed by Bradburn and Feldman (p. 377)." Those poems have news for the communication researcher: Ezra Pound took years to come up with a singular truth, "Literature is news that stays news." Failing to understand that truth, they should subscribe straight off to the favorite newspaper of the Mad Woman of Chaillot.

Source: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 374, Combating Crime (Nov., 1967), pp. 199-200 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science

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