It is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The resultant reverence, pain and doubt have remained in the American psyche since November 22, 1963. It was a turning point for history, media and public relations. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan considered the Kennedy assassination and aftermath definitive of his concept, the global village: “The Kennedy funeral, in short, manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process.”
Media became omnipresent within minutes of JFK’s death, a constant we take for granted today. Paradoxically, there was a gap in coverage: the actual assassination in Dealey Plaza. There were no TV cameras along the limousine’s Elm Street route, although they were in place two days later at Dallas Police Headquarters where Jack Ruby ambushed Lee Harvey Oswald.
The best record of John F. Kennedy’s assassination came from Abraham Zapruder, a spectator filming the President with an 8mm camera, the “posterity device” of the time, associated with countless Thanksgiving dinners and school plays. Wired calls Zapruder’s half-minute film “one of the 20th century’s earliest and most significant pieces of user-generated content.”
One man had to be improbably in the right place with the right technology to make the world witness to the death of a President and the transition of eras. Today, we are all Zapruders, ready to record and even broadcast history. Nobody has to wait for the film to develop. Nobody has to wait for Walter Cronkite to remove his glasses and make an official announcement.
Authority became dreadfully mortal and chronically mistrusted after November 22, 1963, after Zapruder’s film created more questions than answers. Media and public relations both grew to fill the void of there being no more “final word” from our leaders. Technology has vaulted ahead to relieve the pundits and practitioners of the final word as well. Mobile devices outnumber and outpace minicams. The man/woman on the street crafts the message.
Fifty years ago, triggers squeezed in Dealey Plaza–rifle and camera–destroying what we knew and how we came to learn it. Today, the Zapruder nation, the well-equipped global village, is ready to give the final word–again and again and again.