It’s not hard to picture Dealey Plaza in Dallas lined with thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse of a presidential motorcade. But instead of one lone figure with an 8mm film camera, imagine thousands of observers armed with a smart phone or tablet.
What if they had 24-hour cable TV, Internet, social media, and portable media devices like smart phones and iPads in 1963? This is a question my students and I, along with my colleague Prof. John Lofflin, pondered yesterday.
We all agreed that the assassination would have been tweeted and YouTubed almost immediately. Certainly, there would have been high quality video of the motorcade, and of the fateful moment. We agreed as well that TV news networks would probably have faced an awful ethical decision—whether to use the most gruesome video on the air. If you were CNN, would the pressure to use such video, knowing that Fox might show it as well, be overwhelming? Lofflin said he would show the video, but black out the moment that the fatal bullet struck the president. As a peace journalist, one trained not to inflame or exacerbate an already bad situation, Lofflin’s idea seems sensible.
We also agreed about the vital role of broadcast and print media to help news consumers sort through what would certainly have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, Facebook and blog posts, and images (or purported images) of the event.
Since social media and Internet exist in 1963, imagine the rumors, conspiracy theories, and false reports about suspects germinating online. Imagine as well the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the drama of a presidential assassination, and the irresponsible journalism that surely would have occurred under the circumstances.
As we moved on to discuss more traditional media, there was some disagreement about whether newspapers would have (or should have) reported the story differently if 24-hour cable and the Internet existed 50 years ago. Lofflin said that newspapers would still have a responsibility to run a comprehensive story about the assassination (like the iconic NY Times article by Tom Wicker), even if many of the facts were already known by the audience. I’m not so sure about the need for such a piece, or at least the reflexive need to place a comprehensive story on the top of page one. I would run a summary, but subordinate it to stories that expand on the basic information the public has already gathered from the Internet, 24-hour cable, etc.
From a law enforcement standpoint, there probably would have been good cellphone photos of Oswald with his rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Would this have derailed the conspiracy theories? That seems doubtful, especially since there would be thousands of new photos that could probably provide grist for innovative, previously unimagined theories.
Looking back at the assassination, it’s already tragic enough without having to see thousands of bloody images and hours of graphic video footage. On balance, it’s preferable that the only images we have from Nov. 22, 1963 are a some grainy photos and a few seconds of blurry film.