Last night, the National Geographic Channel aired The Lost JFK Tapes, a two-hour documentary that relies not on historians or talking heads but instead on a moment-by-moment recreation of the tumultuous events around the assassination by resorting to contemporaneous films, radio reports, and photos. To most Americans, the images and clips were fresh, seldom seen in the 46 years since Kennedy's murder.
Although most of the material is familiar to assassination researchers, viewers will still be surprised by nuggets such as JFK aide Ken O'Donnell's chilling recollection that Kennedy himself had once said, "if anybody really wanted to shoot the President of the United States, it was not a very difficult job—all one had to do was get a high building someday with a telescopic rifle, and there was nothing anybody could do to defend against such an attempt."
Researchers have learned that “flashbulb memories” are subject to change, especially on famous events, since over time we learn more and more about the tragedy.
• Gerald Posner: Teddy’s JFK Theory The real value of the show was that by presenting the original tapes and clips from that infamous day in Dallas, there is little doubt left of the tremendous confusion and conflicting information that flooded in during the aftermath of the president's murder. When I did my research in 1991 and 1992 for Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, I spent many days reviewing the same radio reports and television interviews and clips shown tonight. They made it clear how the seeds for conspiracy-mongering was laid that very day. Ear witnesses heard shots from different directions at Dealey Plaza. Eyewitnesses had accounts that varied about when the president seemed to be struck by bullets.
For police and FBI, the confusion in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic and unexpected event is not surprising but to be expected. "And most of the information that comes in during the beginning is wrong, we know that," Miami's Police Chief, John Timoney, told me. But still, in the mass of conflicting information, investigators eventually have to sort out the credible accounts from those that are well intentioned but mistaken.
Scientists have determined that when a traumatic event takes place—such as the JFK assassination, 9/11, the death of Princess Di—our brains record those moments as a "flashbulb memory." It's as though when we first learn of it a flashbulb has imprinted in our recall the details of the event. But researchers have learned that such flashbulb memories are subject to change, especially on famous events, since over time we learn more and more about the tragedy. We watch films and documentaries, read books and articles, and talk to others about what they were doing when it happened and what they recall.
All the subsequent information melds together with our own memory and changes the way we recall the event: so much so, that the later memories become so real that we could pass a lie detector test and believe that our altered memories are in fact the correct ones.
The most famous study of flashbulb memories was done after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. Researchers gathered people and asked them four questions about the circumstances of how they learned about the Challenger explosion: First, where they were when they first learned of the explosion. What were they doing when they first heard the news? Did they see the event live on television or learn about it later? And finally, what were their first thoughts?
For each question, subjects ranked their confidence (1 was low and 7 was the highest). Everyone filled in the questionnaire three days after the Challenger explosion.
Nine months later they were asked the same questions. Not only had their answers changed on one or more of the four, but when shown their original recall, instead of remembering those answers given only three days after the event, a majority insisted their "new" and later memories were correct.
In the Kennedy assassination there are dozens of such examples where the original recollection by a witness is rather unremarkable, but over time that person recounts an ever grander and more conspiratorial story that becomes the foundation for convoluted theories like those offered by Oliver Stone and other JFK buffs.
Jean Hill, known as the Lady in Red, was standing on a stretch of grass near where the President's motorcade passed. She can be seen in the famous home movie of the assassination take by Abraham Zapruder (whose same-day interview with a local Dallas television reporter is shown on tonight's show). Hill was interviewed by television, newspapers, and police that day. WBAP-TV interviewed her only hours after the assassination:
Q. "Did you see the person who fired the . . ."
A. "No . . . I didn't see any person fire the weapon . . ."
Q. "You only heard it?"
A. "I only heard it."
Over the years, her memory "improved" so that by the 1990s, she claimed, among many other things, to have seen the assassin, with a badge, shooting from the gassy knoll and that she had also seen Jack Ruby—the nightclub owner who killed Oswald two days after the assassination—running from the corner of the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald had in fact shot Kennedy from that building. But Ruby was at the Dallas Morning News with a group of newsman, placing an ad for his nightclub, when the assassination took place.
Hill was likely sincere in her many changed recollections. But her additions and flip flops create a land mine for journalists and historians trying to sort out the credible information from charlatans and fakes who use a famous event to earn their fifteen minutes of fame.
In the end, any good reporting requires access to the most contemporaneous statements. They aren't always right, but they have the benefit of being unfiltered and raw, unaffected by the subsequent flood of information and controversy that follows every famous disaster or death.
That is why The Lost JFK Tapes was particularly refreshing. It's a look at the interviews and recordings that provide the first draft of history on one of America's most enduring controversies. And in the process, it reminds us of the shock of the day in a fresh and most sobering documentary.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's Chief Investigative Reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.