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

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By James F. Tracy

(Originally posted at MemoryHoleBlog on November 22, 2018)

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


“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.

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.

The effectiveness of the deterrent is observable, for example, in the controversy surrounding a remark by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry upon the assassination’s 50th anniversary. “To this day,” Kerry said in a televised interview, “I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” A few days later NBC’s Meet the Press host David Gregory challenged Kerry on the remark. “That certainly would be surprising to a lot of people that doubt your views. Would you care to elaborate?” “No. I just have a point of view,” Kerry responded, signaling his wish to curtail further discussion. “And I`m not going to get into that.” “Do you think,” Gregory persisted, “the conspiracy theories—[Lee Harvey Oswald’s] involvement with Russia [or] motivation from the Soviet Union or Cuba are valid at some level?” Kerry again refused further comment (Gregory 2013). Thereafter the prominent statesman’s skepticism set off a firestorm of commentary and debate throughout major news outlets.

This specific instance characterizes how major US news media have tended to peremptorily frame and interpret alternative perspectives and analyses of highly questionable public events that have in many cases been defined by authorized sources. In the aftermath of the JFK assassination and the Warren Commission ostensibly detailed inquiry in to the event, influential US news media became principal supporters to what came to be known as the Commission’s “lone assassin” account–that an estranged and radicalized Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole malefactor in the slaying.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the press coverage of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s subsequent investigation of figures and events leading to JFK’s assassination. Lasting from late 1966 to March 1969, Garrison’s inquiry is noteworthy as it more deeply interrogated the episode, linking it to the inner dynamics of the US intelligence community. Garrison’s findings have largely withstood vigorous scrutiny of independent historians who since 1992 have worked with the aid of copious records made available under the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act.

The array of reportage and commentary centering on the Garrison investigation is significant to further understanding the intersection of political events and journalism history for three reasons. First, such coverage vis-à-vis pertinent historical documentation and research suggests coordination between the US intelligence community and the press. Such an arrangement calls into question a fairly commonplace notion of a free press acting as a watchdog over the national security state. Second, stemming from this brief yet significant chapter in national history a propaganda technique arises that is now routinely employed to identify and negate authoritative challenges to official narratives of important political phenomena.

This is often accomplished in the framing of a public organization or personage as irrational and corrupt. More specifically, it is around Garrison that the term “conspiracy theorist” begins to gain the discursive timbre that transformed it into such a powerful depreciative marker. Finally, documentation suggests how along these lines the press is made a precision tool to shape public discourse and belief—in this case on an event of foremost national concern—in very specific ways. To this day the “conspiracy theory” categorization is used to influence public debate and knowledge on pressing issues and incidents, particularly through intimidation of participants and observers alike, thereby aiding to define the overall parameters of exchange.

The study below is divided into four sections. The first provides a historical context for situating the analysis of press coverage of the investigation, including the Central Intelligence Agency’s historical efforts in shaping foreign and domestic public opinion through its influential relationship with US news media. A second part considers the institutional and subtextual dynamics contributing to the “conspiracy theory” term and its mobilization in Garrison investigation coverage. The third portion provides an overview of framing research, the method and data sample of the coverage, and an outlining and description of the specific frames major media constructed to introduce and report on the investigation. Finally, a concluding set of observations is presented to consider the findings and their implications for news media history and research.[1]

The CIA and US News Media

The relationship between the CIA and US news media following World War II played out along two varying trajectories, one of which involved an affinity shared between CIA officers and prominent journalists and publishers as the Cold War took shape, and the second comprising the Agency’s more forceful yet covert infiltration of the press corps.

The fight against Communism provided for a perceived set of shared interests between national duty, intelligence practices, and the routines of journalism. Because the US was in a struggle with totalitarianism abroad, the opportunity to offer ones services in providing information to CIA personnel and even authoring or publishing stories that would further Agency interests, appeared justified.

At the time important newspaper editors and correspondents identified with CIA people in terms of not only a shared nationalism, but in cultural and professional senses as well. According to historian Katherine Olmsted (1996, p. 22), the CIA’s relationship with major news media was often rooted in the old school tie. “The early CIA was renowned for recruiting from Ivy League schools,” Olmsted observes. “Top agency officials often had attended Princeton or Yale with the publishers or editors of eastern newspapers—and their reporters as well.” Here many agents and leading journalists “attended the same dinner parties, joined the same country clubs, and shared the same assumptions about the CIA’s role in the world.”

Yet the Agency’s effort to exploit the press was also more formal. From the end of World War Two through at least the early 1970s the CIA was actively involved in programs to influence public opinion within the United States and abroad through what came to be known as Operation Mockingbird. Headed by CIA Office of Policy Coordination director Frank Wisner, Mockingbird was conceived in 1948 and fostered amicable relations and contacts with news outlets. Such relationships were fostered to have desirable stories placed in prominent publications promoting Agency objectives.

One of Wisner’s early allies was Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham, who benefited through Agency subsidization of foreign correspondents working under Agency auspices. In accord with the CIA’s mission under the 1947 National Security Act to only operate abroad, Mockingbird was initially envisioned by Wisner and Graham “to give foreign peoples a sense of America, to ‘alter their perceptions’ against Communism without violence.” Graham aided the endeavor by recruiting journalists for that purpose (Davis 1979, p. 138). Once in motion, however, reporters and news outlets were inevitably used within the US to sway public opinion on Agency-related concerns, such as facilitating public sentiment toward US Cold War efforts.

Oversight of the CIA press relations program was restricted to top Agency officials. This select few also directly involved themselves in cultivating relations with the heads of major press outlets, including CIA Directors Allen Dulles and Richard Helms (a one-time UPI correspondent) (Bernstein 1977). Within a few short years Mockingbird was fully operational. In addition to Graham’s participation, one author suggests how Wisner and his cohorts effectively “’owned’ respected members of the New York Times, CBS, and other communications vehicles,” in addition to several hundred stringers (Davis 1979, p. 139).

As former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein similarly demonstrates, declassified Agency files indicate

“the CIA in the 1950s, ‘60s and even early ‘70s had concentrated its relationships with journalists in the most prominent sectors of the American press corps, including four or five of the largest newspapers in the country, the broadcast networks and the two major newsweekly magazines [Time and Newsweek]” (Bernstein 1977).

The Agency’s associations with journalists fell under several categories depending on specific purpose and affiliation. Some positions were readily compensated and others were more voluntary. These included

*Legitimate, accredited staff members of news organizations, usually reporters … This group includes many of the best known journalists who carried out tasks for the CIA.

*Stringers and freelancers … some filed news stories; others reported only for the CIA … Their journalistic credentials were often supplied by cooperating news organizations. *Employees of so-called CIA “proprietaries,” e.g. “secretly bankrolled numerous foreign press services, periodicals and newspapers– both English and foreign language.”

*Editors, publishers and broadcast network executive.

*Columnists and commentators … referred to at the Agency as “known assets” [who] can be counted on to perform a variety of undercover tasks (Bernstein 1977).

Time and Newsweek magazines were both utilized by the CIA, according to files that “contain written agreements with former foreign correspondents and stringers for both the weekly news magazines,” Bernstein reports. Further, when Newsweek was bought by the Washington Post Company in 1961 Post publisher Phillip Graham, already well-acquainted with Agency operations, “was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes.”

Although Graham committed suicide in 1963, Newsweek’s coverage of the Garrison investigation suggests that such arrangements were still extant through the late 1960s. A similar arrangement existed at Time-Life, where Life publisher C.D. Jackson acted as liaison between the CIA and publisher Henry Luce. Jackson “approved specific arrangements for providing CIA employees with Time-Life cover.” Some contacts were made with the understanding of Hedley Donovan, who took over the editorial reins of Time Inc. in 1959. According to former CIA officer William Bader, “You don’t need to manipulate Time magazine … because there are Agency people at the management level.”

US News and World Report, an outlet sharing many of the CIA’s Cold War views, sought to curtail relations with the Agency and would not submit to providing cover for its activities. This was oddly the case even though the magazine’s founding editor David Lawrence was a personal friend of Allen Dulles (Bernstein 1977).

On the whole, throughout the Cold War major US news media became appreciably bound up in Agency endeavors. As political scientist Loch Johnson observes, “Wherever one stood normatively on this issue, one fact was incontrovertible: the CIA-media relationship had evolved by the late 1950s into a complicated matrix of people, activities, and bonds of association” (Johnson 1989, p. 184). Further confirmation of this rapport is realized in the Agency’s own internal memoranda.

Dispatch 1035-960

The degree to which press integrity was compromised is important for interpreting coverage of the Garrison inquiry. There is little doubt that the Agency strategized to deflect criticism of Warren Commission findings. Perhaps the most unambiguous artifact in this regard is CIA Document 1035-960. An April 1, 1967 dispatch released under a 1977 New York Times Freedom of Information request, 1035-960 addressed Agency foreign field offices overseeing “propaganda assets” at major news outlets (New York Times 1977, p. A37).

The communication expressed concern over public questioning of the “lone assassin” account. “Presumably as a result of the increasing challenge to the Warren Commission’s report,” the communiqué read, “a public opinion poll recently indicated that 46% of the American public did not think that Oswald acted alone, while more than half of those polled thought that the Commission had left some questions unresolved.” Concern ensued that overseas polls might soon mirror those in the US (“CIA Dispatch”).

Garrison’s investigation had the potential to bolster such public skepticism on an international scale. As a World War Two veteran and popularly elected figure, Garrison exuded credibility. Further, with the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, and to compel sworn testimony, he could not be easily dismissed as another “conspiracy buff.” As Time (1968, p. 74) openly remarked, Garrison was “the first conspiracy addict with the power to do more than talk.”

1035-960 recommended discussing “the publicity problem” with “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)”, to emphasize the Warren Commission’s conclusions. It further provided instructions for delegitimizing public figures by calling into question their motives and reasoning capacities.

“Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories.”

Further, the terms “conspiracy theories/theorists” are presented in the memo’s introductory paragraphs, with variants of the expression and subtle suggestions of their intended meaning throughout, alluding to how “countering and discrediting” Warren Report critics should proceed (“CIA Dispatch”). It is to a brief discussion of these now commonplace terms and their construction in the framing process to which the essay now turns.

Framing “Big Jim”

Journalists are routinely involved in conveying information through narrative design. Such narratives typically cohere around the objects of reportage. In answering the who, what, where, when, how and why, a basic frame for the story takes shape. By emphasizing or downplaying specific features in the story, and by juxtaposing particular words, phrases, expressions, quotes from sources, a more discernible frame emerges from which a readership imparts and derives meaning.

Frames, as discursive precursors of meaning, are often prescriptive in nature, suggesting to readers how something should be regarded and even acted upon. As Entman (1993, p. 52 emphasis retained) observes, “To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” In describing depicted objects the cumulative set of frames shape public opinion toward the given phenomena.

Human beings naturally seek to derive meaning from symbols and the ideas they prompt, and a story’s frame suggests how given characters might be regarded. Suggestion or more direct reference to the bizarre, paranoid or conspiratorial cohere in ways that constitute an “other.” “Whenever ‘others’ are constructed,” Husting and Orr (2007, p. 129) argue, “they call into being their opposite: an imagined community of ‘people like us’ that can be used to create a manipulable public.” A foremost technique along these lines is the “conspiracy theory/ist” label that “can deflect attention from the claims at hand and shift discourse to the nature of the claimant.”

“Conspiracy theory,” “assassination theory” and similar characterizations are routinely used throughout Garrison investigation coverage. Such terms situate the inquiry in a broader lexicon of meaning. Stuart Hall et al., (1978 pp. 54-55) note how “an event only ‘makes sense’ if it can be located within a range of” commonly held “social and cultural identifications” or “cultural ‘maps’ of the social world.”

Through the cumulative interplay of news frames and such widely held intellectual formations, these chartings can be refashioned over time, with the broader public’s preconceptions and expectations toward certain identifications influenced accordingly. As Ralph Miliband (1969, p. 238) notes, media representations can cultivate “a climate of conformity” through the “presentation of views which fall outside the consensus as curious heresies, or, even more effectively, by treating them as irrelevant eccentricities, which serious and reasonable people may dismiss as of no consequence.”

Indeed, the framing regimen applied to Garrison closely parallels the formula suggested in 1035-960 that demonstrated to Agency operatives the subtleties of the symbolic mechanism itself. As political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith (2013, p. 116-117) observes, the dispatch employed a resourceful social scientific approach that anticipated “how mass publics think about politics and political issues.” At this rough historical juncture the construction of the “conspiracy theorist” political type and the mental impressions prompted and associated with it developed.

Instead of recommending the overt use of the “conspiracy theory/theorist” label to assail public figures, the 1035-960 communiqué modeled a technique for the broader configuration of the conspiratorial sort in the public mind through its own oblique phrasing; “that is,” deHaven-Smith explains, “by contrasting” JFK assassination researchers “with other groups, speculating on their motives, identifying groups with which they are distant or close, and so on. As the group is given a place among other groups in the listener’s belief system, it becomes, in effect, alive and endowed with personality in the observer’s imagination.”

Thus to a significant degree with the growing controversy surrounding the Warren Report and the emergence of District Attorney Jim Garrison’s formal investigation of the murder, a new archetype was at least tentatively brought forth upon the American political landscape. To recap, by the 1960s the CIA had a substantial number of contacts and associates within major news media. Document 1035-960 outlines a strategy for defending the Warren Report. These details suggest at least limited participation of the Agency in setting the tone of public discourse surrounding Garrison’s inquiry.

By repeatedly locating Jim Garrison and his associates in unambiguous milieu and relating them to other social actors–frames through which the whole investigation was publicly presented—major news outlets under analysis aided in delegitimizing the district attorney’s case and impeded his ability to successfully carry it out. The essay now turns to closer analyses of the specific ways in which the overall conspiratorial frame is developed in the context of the Garrison probe.


Given space constraints of this submission a data sample was gathered from major US newsweeklies that generally reflects the news frame through which the Garrison investigation was presented. The inquiry became public on February 17, 1967 with an article in the New Orleans States-Item and concluded on March 1, 1969 with the acquittal of defendant Clay Shaw for his alleged involvement in the assassination. Searches via the H.W. Wilson Readers’ Guide Retrospective 1890-1982 were conducted for Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report from October 1, 1966 to June 31, 1969 using the terms “John F. Kennedy” and “assassination” or “Jim Garrison” in all text fields.

This yielded 60 articles, 13 of which centered on controversy surrounding the Kennedy family-authorized William Manchester book The Death of a President. The sample was narrowed to 27 articles on Garrison and/or his investigation (Time 11, Newsweek 14, US News 2), and eight pieces establishing the “assassination-conspiracy theory” notion vis-à-vis the JFK assassination (Time 3, Newsweek 3, US News 2) appearing from October to December 1966 not directly related to Garrison. These eight articles form the basis of a discernible preliminary frame Garrison is ultimately positioned in.

Three overarching frames emerge around the investigation early on and endure throughout the coverage. Each adheres in some degree to the formula presented in 1035-960. The above suggests how Time and Newsweek were likely more susceptible to CIA manipulation than US News. This is at least partly upheld in the sheer number of Time and Newsweek articles focusing on the Garrison probe.

Frame one, “Amateur Sherlocks,” emerges in the immediate months leading up to the Garrison inquiry going public. Here the activities of mainly non-credentialed researchers questioning the Warren Report are highlighted. This frame carries over to coverage of Garrison, whose investigation is presented as reckless and speculative, and reliant on dubious investigative methods.

The second frame, “Big Jim’s Odd Company,” situates Garrison in the exoticized milieu of New Orleans itself, a city replete with a seemingly bizarre atmosphere and set of characters that includes Garrison and his staff. Here Garrison’s purported unprofessional habits and investigative methods are centered on vis-à-vis the suspects.

Frame three, “Jolly Green Giant,” is established in the first and second frames as it accentuates Garrison’s alleged political opportunism and behavior. This frame is strengthened via positive treatment afforded principal suspect Clay Shaw.

US News & World Report

Unlike Time and Newsweek, US News & World Report, while supportive of the Warren Report (US News & World Report 1966), provided little coverage to Garrison’s investigation throughout its two year span. A brief piece appeared in early March 1967 (US News & World Report 1967a) highlighting Shaw’s arrest and concluding with dismissive remarks from President Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark on Garrison’s investigation.

This was followed in June with a two-page treatment centering on Garrison’s observations of probable FBI and CIA involvement in an assassination cover-up. US News straightforwardly counters Garrison’s allegations by referencing the Warren Report’s finality alongside refutations from FBI and CIA spokesmen. Even Texas Governor John Connally, “said he has ‘almost seen enough’ to be convinced there is nothing of substance in the New Orleans investigation. That is the conclusion of all informed officials reached by U.S. News & World Report” (US News & World Report 1967b, p. 56). The magazine’s limited attention to the probe contrasts sharply with the extraordinary nature and degree of coverage afforded by its counterparts.

Frame One: “Amateur Sherlocks”

As the third anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination approached, Time and Newsweek focused on public skepticism of the Warren Report by depicting those questioning the “lone assassin theory” as incompetent researchers, even mentally unbalanced—a frame that would come to rest around Garrison. Further, there is an overall suspicion of how uncredentialed researchers may be influencing public opinion toward the assassination. This apprehension frequently assumes a sarcastic tone. For example, Newsweek explains how “amateur scholars” venture to the National Archives in Washington DC. There “almost any day, a visitor can find one or two instant historians poring over some 300 cubic feet of evidence generated by the assassination” (Newsweek 1966a, p. 37).

In this manner the researchers are driven by faith more than reason. “[D]issent has become a cult with its own true disbelievers—a subculture of assassination buffs who obsessively probe the massive record, swap their findings, and publish new and even more elaborate conspiracy theories.” The effect of such research, Newsweek notes, is evident in recent opinion polls indicating “three fifths of the American public doubts the assassination was the work of one man—nearly double the level of two years ago” (Newsweek 1966a, p. 37).

One week later Newsweek addressed researcher queries over what parties possessed evidence of Kennedy’s autopsy. “Of all the loose ends in the John F. Kennedy murder case,” the newsweekly began, “few have so fascinated the conspiracy theorists as a single mystery within a mystery: what became of the photos and x-rays of the JFK autopsy.” The “mystery within a mystery” was solved when it was discovered that the documents “had been in the possession of the Kennedy family all along.” The Kennedys deposited the autopsy records at the National Archive, demanding they be sealed for five years (Newsweek 1966b, p. 30).

Newsweek subsequently devoted five pages to addressing further skepticism over the official assassination theory after Governor Connally, who accompanied JFK in the presidential limousine on November 22, suggested that the President and he were struck by separate bullets. Newsweek downplayed Connally’s assertions, even as it reported that major news outlets “called for new investigations—or for fresh answers from the commission.” The magazine countered that any “new investigating body could, in the main, only ponder and judge the same imperfect body of evidence,” and that “there could be no final certainties” (Newsweek 1966c, p. 26).

The article was followed by a lengthy piece from Newsweek White House correspondent Charles Roberts (1966, p. 27) recounting how many eyewitness accounts he documented firsthand in the immediate aftermath of the assassination “were the product of imagination, shock, confusion, and something much worse—a macabre desire on the part of some bystanders to be identified with a great tragedy or to pretend greater firsthand knowledge of the event than they possessed.”

Roberts explains how the “seeds of the ‘conspiracy’ or ‘second gunman’ theory of the Kennedy murder were sown” outside Parkland Hospital, with one journalist noting “what appeared to be a small bullet hole in the front windshield of the President’s car.” This, along with one surgeon telling reporters “that ‘there was an entrance wound below [JFK’s] Adam’s apple” disturbingly results in a single author “and a legion of amateur sleuths who followed in his footsteps to pose the theory that a gunman other than Oswald fired from in front of the Kennedy car” (Roberts 1966, p. 28).

Time’s coverage similarly addressed unauthorized research on the assassination as the work of “mythmakers,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “amateur sherlocks.” With the Kennedys’ handover of autopsy documents to the National Archive, for example, Time pointed to “the conspiracy theorists claiming that the doctor’s entire autopsy report had been tailor-made to bolster the commission’s single bullet theory. The doubters,” Time continues, “argued that 1) the bullet was probably lower on Kennedy’s back, and 2) the first bullet had actually lodged in his body” (Time 1966a, p. 33).

Another article in the same issue addresses journalist Penn Jones Jr.’s interrogation of unusual deaths surrounding the assassination and the Warren Commission’s investigation. “For many who believe that there was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy in Dallas,” Time observes, “the most mesmeric argument of all is that an extraordinary number of people involved in the case—however remotely—have since lost their lives under mysterious circumstances …To conspiracy theorists, the clear implication is that the victims know too much and were systematically liquidated” (Time 1966b, p. 33).

Much like Newsweek, Time (1966c, p. 34-35) highlights the apparent pedestrian preoccupation with research disputing the Warren Report’s conclusions. Disturbingly, “no less than 54% of all Americans now think the commission left ‘a lot of unanswered questions about who killed Kennedy.’” The newsweekly likewise points to “Amateur Sherlocks” that “have besieged the National Archives with requests to see the President’s autopsy x rays and photographs.” Such “[s]elf-appointed investigators” and “cocktail party dissenters” comprising a “cult of parlor detectives” “are at work throughout the nation.” Motivated through a sort of elusive faith, the novices “have in effect turned the quest for the ‘real assassin’ into an evangelistic vocation.” According to Time, the “chief stimulant” of the mass “phantasmagoria” involves “an outpouring of critical books on the subject,” in particular attorney Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, “a staggering accumulation of minutiae and half-truths based on minutiae.”

On the whole, there are simply too many assassination theories, most of which are “tenuous and documentably [sic] erroneous.” Although Governor Connally adamantly maintains “’that one bullet caused the president’s first wound, and that an entirely separate shot struck” him, Time (1966c, p. 35) concludes alongside Newsweek that “lacking any new evidence” there is no need for “a new investigation” since “in crucial areas … no firm facts exist”). Months later Jim Garrison is encompassed in “Amateur Sherlocks” frame as a sort of gatecrasher. Because he is asking difficult questions concerning the JFK assassination he might be easily mocked or ignored like novice researchers. Yet as an elected law enforcement official Garrison’s professional discernment and overall trustworthiness are repeatedly targeted throughout the newsweeklies’ coverage.

For example, Newsweek observes how Garrison is prone to “wide-ranging accusations. But unlike other commission critics doubting Oswald’s guilt, the burly, boisterous district attorney has all the powers of his office—to subpoena witnesses, to make arrests, and to procure search warrants” (“History or Headlines”). This was too much power for an “investigation-happy” prosecutor prone to conducting a “Carnival in New Orleans” while claiming “he had cracked the murder mystery of the century.” Newsweek argued how Garrison was a victim of his own fantasies. The “conspiracy in New Orleans” involved “a plot of Garrison’s own making. It is a scheme to concoct a fantastic ‘solution’ to the death of John F. Kennedy, and to make it stick” (Aynesworth 1967, p. 36).

Where Newsweek raises Garrison’s judgment, Time tends toward more straightforward caricature, repeatedly emphasizing the official’s physical appearance and demeanor. “The larger than life (6 ft. 6 in.) district attorney of New Orleans has tilted at windmills and gin mills, chastened Bourbon Street’s once-famed B-girls, scourged the judiciary and battled with the mayor.” Yet “Garrison’s investigation of ‘several plots’ to kill President Kennedy has yielded the most rococo tale yet to emerge from that tragic day in Dallas” (Time 1967a, p. 33). “Big Jim Garrison … [t]he towering (6 ft. 6 in.) district attorney of New Orleans” was leading a “sensational crusade to unmask a conspiracy in the JFK assassination. Garrison’s researchers were awkward and inept. “His sleuths, like small boys overturning a rock in a muddy field, have uncovered all manner of seemy, unsavory creatures with curious links to Oswald” (Time 1967b, p. 24). “Garrison’s spectacular investigation” proceeded, and was “barely distinguishable from circus sideshow.” Time misleadingly titled its story, “The D.A. Wins a Round” that reluctantly announced how the case would go to trial (Time 1967c, p. 33).

Garrison’s apparent incompetence is accentuated by a second powerful frame situating his investigation within presumably sordid surroundings and relationships that likely appeared fictional to much of 1960s middle America.

Frame Two: “Big Jim’s Odd Company”

The second frame focuses on New Orleans’ unusual cultures and inhabitants, thus correspondingly accentuating Garrison’s unconventional demeanor established in Frame One. For example, Newsweek’s initial story spotlights suspect David Ferrie, who died mysteriously days after being questioned by Garrison’s team. “David William Ferrie was an exotic,” Newsweek begins. “His appearance was outlandish, his background bizarre, and for a time last week even his death was ambiguous.” Ferrie had “[a] bushy red wig with penciled eyebrows,” and held various occupations where he “functioned legitimately.” Yet he was also “dismissed as a seminary student (for emotional instability), as an Eastern Airlines pilot (for homosexuality) and as a suspect in the assassination of John F. Kennedy (for lack of evidence)” (Newsweek 1967a, p. 32).

Another piece begins, “The sinister summer of 1963 was a time of turbulence for New Orleans, that most Latin of major U.S. cities. The streets were seething with Cuban exiles of every political stripe, and the city was simmering with their plots and counterplots” (Newsweek 1967b, p. 44). Indeed, the emphasis of New Orleans Latino and gay communities contributed to the murky backdrop of Garrison’s environs, and, from the standpoint of then-conventional American mores, contributed to the investigation’s uncertainty and conspiratorial dimension.

For example, Garrison’s attention toward “homosexuals, a relatively vulnerable group, tended to produce a line-up of alleged conspirators, that much of the public found difficult to take seriously.” While Ferrie was regarded by Garrison as “’one of history’s most important individuals’” (Time 1967a, p. 30) he remained “a laughingstock to exile [Cuban] militants” (Newsweek 1967b, p. 47). Garrison’s efforts to substantiate testimony from a key witness through sodium pentothal and hypnosis were interpreted by Newsweek as a “gumbo of hypnotism and drugs, spiced with a soupcon of homosexual entanglement” (Newsweek 1967c, p. 44).

Perry Russo attested to observing Ferrie, Shaw and Lee Harvey Oswald discuss plans for Kennedy’s assassination. Newsweek describes him as the “ideal witness.” “He was cool, calm—‘almost as if he was hypnotized,’ said one attorney. Lo and behold, the defense later discovered that Russo had been hypnotized, just hours before he testified.” In fact, Russo had been placed under hypnosis 50 hours before his testimony. Garrison’s second “’witness’” was “a 27-year-old Negro drug addict, Vernon Bundy [who] said that while sitting on the lakefront one morning waiting to ‘pop’ a cap of heroin he looked up and saw Oswald being handed a wad of money by Shaw” (Aynesworth 1967, p. 38).

The investigation “had the look of a remarkable improvisation, a helter-skelter house of canards teetering and hanging on the verge of collapse.” Moreover, the apparent exoticism of the characters and hocus-pocus investigative methods meld with and adulterate Garrison’s “theory,” one that, Newsweek stresses, “had undergone so many permutations that his composite conspirator now would probably be equal parts Oswald, homosexual, right wing extremist, FBI agent, Cosa Nostra hood, CIA operative and Russian double agent” (Aynesworth 1967, p. 40).

If Garrison’s techniques appear “dubious,” Time notes, “some of the characters he has gathered around him seem even stranger. He has opened his files to Mark Lane, Harold Weisberg, Mort Sahl and other Warren Commission critics (they call themselves the Dealey Plaza Irregulars). And he has also based many of his verbal charges on the stories of an exceptional crew of weirdos, convicts, and homosexuals” (Newsweek 1968b, p. 74).

Such scrutiny contrasts with coverage in immoderate Europe, “where thousands still cling to the [Garrison] conspiracy theory in spite of the Warren commission’s conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, the 46-year-old Garrison and his investigation have been the stuff of page one headlines.” The European “taste for conspiracy,” Newsweek (1967d, p. 76) suggests, “contrasts with “most domestic newsmen … and their editors” who “regard Garrison with skepticism” and thus “have played down his charges.”

In its review of NBC’s special hour-long treatment of Garrison’s inquiry, The JFK Conspiracy: The Case of Jim Garrison, Newsweek (1967e, p. 82) noted how the network “took its audience on a rare voyage through a netherworld usually only visited by novelists and mystery writers. It presented vignettes of pimps, pornographers, homosexuals, sexual masochists, nymphomaniacs, and narcotic addicts.” The disturbing program “pored over complex codes and cryptographs, and sifted through theories of hypnotic spells, truth serums and polygraphs. And it provided some exotic dialogue.”

Time (1967e, p. 21) also reported on NBC’s The JFK Conspiracy—specifically how lie detector tests “had cast doubt on the testimony of two key witnesses” and even “seemed to indicate that Russo had a psychopathic personality.” Garrison “has forced up the ante with one bizarre theory after another…” Still, “[t]he press and TV continued to dismantle his imagined maze of Machiavellianism: secret codes that supposedly led to Ruby’s telephone number, the elusive and probably fictional ‘Clay Bertrand,’ the Cuban intrigue.”

In a similar reportorial tableau, Time (1967a, p. 30) also focused on the unusual features of New Orleans and Garrison’s bizarre witnesses. For example, Ferrie was “nervous, sick, probably homosexual—with thick, rug-like pieces of fabric replacing eyebrows, lost either by accident or disease—[Ferrie] had known that Garrison was after him and, said his physician, had been ‘disturbed and depressed.’” Garrison’s investigation, Time (1967c, p. 21) notes, focuses on “among others, pro-Castro leftists, anto-Castro Cubans and a motley assortment of beatniks, homosexuals and psychopaths of various stripes.” Such figures could be found in “’gay’ coffee shops and bars in New Orleans’ French Quarter to shadowy back streets in the Cuban sections of Dallas and Miami.”

Time described Garrison’s “spectacular investigation” as “barely distinguishable from a circus sideshow,” while reporting on a three judge hearing surveying evidence where it concluded suspect Clay Shaw must face trial. “One of the D.A.’s witnesses was a confessed heroin addict. The other was a young insurance salesman whose impeccable clothing concealed a mind in considerable disarray and whose memory had to be jogged by means of hypnosis.”

Another Time article (1967f, p. 47) emphasizes the prosecutor’s dubious reliance on “truth drugs and hypnotism” to bound Shaw to trial. Such drugs, one Yale psychiatry professor argues, “put patients in ‘a twilight zone where it is very difficult to tell truth from fantasy.’” Time (1967g, p. 54) further focuses on attorney Dean Andrews, who Garrison had convicted of perjury for failing to divulge Shaw’s double identity and relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald. “Ever since Garrison’s inquiry started,” the publication noted, “the oddball lawyer has bounced in and out with such a mixture of contradictions and dislocated hip talk that few knew or cared what he was saying. Garrison kept track though … ‘The jolly green giant’ as Andrews calls Garrison, filed perjury charges.”

Frame Three: “Jolly Green Giant in Wonderland”

The first two frames confirm the caricature of Garrison’s personal features, behavior, and alleged political opportunism that form Frame Three. While Garrison has no direct control over the press, sought to keep the case out of public view for as long as possible, and granted almost no interviews, he is presented as commanding his own publicity via the seemingly odd nature of his observations and hypotheses. Thus, this frame is unique, for it is one that news outlets arguably perpetuate then fault Garrison for.

The district attorney earned the nickname “Jolly Greent Giant” for his physical height and outgoing character as an office holder. Yet the coverage provides the repeated suggestion that Garrison is pursuing the investigation for personal gain. Where novice investigators delve into assassination research with religious zeal, Garrison wants publicity and higher office. For example, New Orleans resident, US intelligence operative and key witness Gordon Novel, who fled to Ohio to avoid “harassment,” is quoted remarking, “’Garrison’s political ambitions is what this is all about’” (Time 1967h, p. 37). When Garrison implicated the FBI and CIA because of their reluctance to turn over documents in the case, Newsweek (1967f, p. 42) noted how the “new moves produced the intended result—publicity—and nothing else.”

NBC’s television news special “add[ed] to the growing body of evidence that Garrison’s case is more show than substance” (Newsweek 1967e, p. 82). “A special law of thermodynamics seems to govern Jim Garrison’s free-form search for a ‘conspiracy’ behind the murder of John F. Kennedy,” Newsweek (1968b, p. 25) noted. “[I]t gets hot when public attention grows cooler.” In reality, the investigation was “Big Jim’s headline-hunting sideshow” (Newsweek 1969a, p. 27). “Over the course of “two years, big Jim Garrison has been an extra ordinarily imaginative barker in promoting his assassination sideshow in New Orleans” (Newsweek 1969b, p. 34).

Along these lines, “After years of circus tactics,” Time (1969a, p.44) observed as Shaw’s trial approached, “he is obviously the main character in the courtroom drama.” New Orleans’ two dailies, the Times-Picayune and the States-Item were plagued “from an apparent case of astigmatism” in their two years of reportage and restricted editorial comment on the Garrison investigation—what Newsweek (1969c, p. 105) termed a “hometown story.” The papers are critiqued for failing “to expose District Attorney Jim Garrison as he spun out a fantastical conspiracy theory implicating everyone from Cuban exiles and homosexuals to the CIA in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”

In a similar tone Time (1967a, p. 30) reported how the inquiry “has already garnered a bumper crop of publicity for Jim Garrison,” as he embarked on “his sensational crusade to unmask a conspiracy” (Time 1967b, p. 24). It is “Jim Garrison’s spectacular investigation” (Time 1967c, p. 33) where “[f]or months” he “has been releasing the findings of his bizarre investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination one headline at a time” (Time 1967d, p. 50). The district attorney has “forced up the ante with one bizarre conspiracy theory after another” (Time 1967e, p. 21) giving him “ample means to force his version of the truth into the limelight,” after “pumping the case for two years in public” (Time 1969b, p. 35). Garrison’s behavior and environs starkly contrast with defendant Clay Shaw, ostensibly depicted as the victim of Garrison’s excesses; “a white-haired, deep-voiced bachelor who had lived under accusation and innuendo for the past two years,” Time (1969c, p. 31) observes.

Similarly Newsweek (1967b, p. 24) describes Shaw as a “bachelor-about-town” and Time a “well-known business leader.” A search of his home upon arrest “yielded little but apparently unrelated exotica: five whips, several lengths of chain, a black net hat, a black cape and hood” (Newsweek 1967b, p. 47). Newsweek asserts how “the district attorney and his staff have been indirect parties to the death of one man and have humiliated, harassed, and financially gutted several others.” A caption to a photo in the piece reads, “Shaw: A price for vulnerability” (Aynesworth 1967, p. 40).


Jim Garrison’s investigation and prosecution of Clay Shaw was the only case brought forth by a law enforcement official in the JFK assassination. US press coverage of the event played a significant role in the broader court of public opinion. This study adds another dimension to this equation, suggesting the significance of the Garrison inquiry in the eyes of a US intelligence community that had long since taken an active interest news media and their fundamental role in public discourse.

The reportage under consideration here is even more curious when, among other things, one considers how Garrison went to great lengths to protect Shaw’s rights. This included arranging for a preliminary hearing to determine if the defendant should be required to stand trial. Upon a unanimous decision the case was brought before the Grand Jury, which charged Shaw of involvement in a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. “I took these steps,” Garrison explains, “anyone of which, if unsuccessful, would have ended the case then and there—because I felt that the enormity of the charge required me to exercise every conceivable caution on behalf of the president” (Garrison, 1970, p. 17).

More recent evidence places certain press involvement in sabotaging Garrison’s case essentially beyond dispute. For example, members of the NBC News crew that traveled to New Orleans in 1967 to document Garrison’s investigation were collaborating with Shaw’s defense team in efforts to persuade key witnesses such as Perry Russo to change their testimony, and “even attempting to move major witnesses permanently to another part of the country,” Garrison recounts. “We had already been the targets of numerous distortions exaggerations, and even fabrications in the news media. But these ‘media’ people were going far beyond word games. They were engaged in an organized effort to derail an official investigation of a major city’s district attorney’s office” (Garrison 1988, p.168).

At least one newsweekly writer was also sharing notes with federal officials and Shaw’s attorneys as he outwardly reported on the investigation as a journalist. Hugh Aynesworth’s Newsweek article, “JFK ‘Conspiracy’” was an acutely vitriolic attack on Garrison and the investigation. Yet Aynesworth was an informant for the FBI and President Johnson on the case, even wiring a rough draft of the article to Johnson’s press secretary a few days before its publication. Indeed, documents declassified under the Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 indicate how Aynesworth also collaborated with Shaw’s defense to subvert witness testimony (DiEugenio 2012, pp. 251-253).

In addition to CIA Dispatch 1035-960, the Agency took a specific interest in Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw, with a working group convened by the Director of Intelligence in September 1967 to examine the dilemma and determine actions in what it perceived as a probable “conviction of Shaw for conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy” (Janney, 16, 2013). A primary outcome of the coverage remains the discursive and ideational basis of the term “conspiracy theory” in the contemporary informational lexicon. This powerful label and notion signifies a more complicated historical nexus of political tensions and uncertainties that remain unsettled. The fundamentals of the conspiracy theorist marker involve cultivating the impression of an individual or group’s odd disaffection from accepted norms and popular moorings accomplished through the news media’s framing process—indeed a “strategy of exclusion” that preserves certain core political configurations and a public consent conducive to their preservation.


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Bernstein, Carl (1977) “The CIA and the Media: How America’s Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up,” Rolling Stone, 20 October. Available at http://www.carlbernstein.com/magazine_cia_and_media.php

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Time (1967e) “Closing In,” 7 July 7, p. 21.

Time (1967f) “Shutting Up Big Mouth,” 25 August, p. 54.

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