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JFK, Mass Media, and the Origins of ‘Conspiracy Theory’

Prefatory Note on Censorship in Academe

This study was written in 2013-14 as part of my academic research as Associate Professor of Media Studies at Florida Atlantic University. I have had numerous papers addressing news coverage of historical events published in academic journals over the past two decades. However, this was the first attempt to offer a scholarly treatment of a research object related to a conspiracy–how the news media “framed” New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s JFK assassination inquiry.

When I presented the paper at the Association For Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Montreal Conference in 2014 the panel respondent congratulated me on what he deemed to be a very well-researched and written manuscript. He further remarked that it was at most a draft or two away from submission for editorial review at a scholarly journal. I was also confident the study would eventually achieve publication. 

The paper was subsequently rejected by five journals out-of-hand. The editors refused to even send the paper out for review, which never occurred to me before. Notably, each editor provided a different reason for not wanting to give it further consideration. What is more, three of the venues had published my work in previous years. The paper nevertheless offers a timely contribution to understanding the historical origins of the term “conspiracy theory” and its development from perhaps the most momentous event in 20th century American politics.

This helped me to further realize how despite celebrated notions of unbridled inquiry and academic freedom, certain subjects so historically central to the nation’s history in fact remain taboo among academics–those entrusted by society to research such matters–vis-á-vis their counterparts in professional journalism, with both camps still proceeding in tacit agreement to police the boundaries of permissible discourse and thought. -JFT


Introduction

“It appears that certain elements of the mass media have an active interest in preventing this case from ever coming to trial at all and find it necessary to employ against me every smear device in the book.” –Jim Garrison (Playboy 1967)

The news media’s failure to interrogate and question the “the lone assassin” theory by the 1964 Presidents Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, otherwise known as the Warren Commission, should be recognized as one of the greatest episodes of journalistic misconduct in US history. The mass media have played a pivotal role in the coverup of the Kennedy (JFK) assassination that they unabashedly practice to this day. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation of the November 22, 1963 event was the first substantial challenge to the official narrative. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) countered Garrison’s efforts by calling upon its media assets to directly attack, defame, even sabotage the inquiry.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

From this episode the CIA developed one of its most potent psychological weapons against political dissent: the “conspiracy theory” label. Over its 50-year lifespan the label has time and again demonstrated its effectiveness in policing the public sphere by calling into question the credibility and even the sanity of journalists, academics, or any other public figure that dares question authorized myths for the masses.

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