Zapruder Nation

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 filmone 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.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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4 Responses to Zapruder Nation

  1. Dr. Frank says:

    I suppose labeling and Public Relations go hand-in-hand but the author herein only nods toward the hidden role of technology.

    From the perspective of one who can clearly remember the moment (I was bicycling to class on a large Eastern University campus), when I first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I believe (as opposed to purporting to “know”) that our reality today is far from the title of this piece. There is no easily discernible thread.

    The major differences between the necessary thinking, both critical and profane, following the events in Dealey Plaza and the sheepishness associated with vertically or horizontally nodding one’s head over a reported film clip frenzy of today; that by definition can only show moments-in-time and must always be taken out of context (otherwise one would have to be present to absorb every nuance of an event), are profound.

    Did the Zapruder film lend itself to or was it a precursor to the Watergate scandal in the following decade? Tragically, it was a different President who was using audio tape technology who failed the nation and himself. No, I would offer that advances in technologies span time, presidents and events. I cannot foresee a time in the future when we will not have humans interacting with advanced technology any more or less than has occurred in the past.

    Technology carries the largest burden associated with these changes. As it turns out, what advance video and audio technologies provide today is not at all reflective of any more complex thinking or even complex actions taken by us humans. If that were true there would be much less failing at hand. More accurately, any times are merely a reflection of the complexity of the technology that we will then carry to every nook and cranny of the planet.

    If everyone in Dealey Plaza on that fateful day in 1963 had owned a smart phone or a GoPro we would have had the same problem then that the meteorologist community suffers from today when attempting to discern predictive weather values from the petabits of weather information that modern satellites now provide. A case of too much information not of any more or fewer talking heads about tornadoes or super storms.

    We just would not have known then, anymore with all that information, than what we knew from the Zabruder film. I would offer that we are not a Zapruder Nation but rather a reflection of the facets of the technology that we have enjoyed, now enjoy, will enjoy and – sadly – often misuse.

    Dr. Frank
    DM, 2012

    • jasonkarpf says:

      Dr. Frank–
      You make excellent points. It was not my intention to say that “the truth” is now at hand due to the proliferation of recording and broadcasting technology. Today, we can create a vastly greater number of communication channels bringing vastly greater amounts of confusion and conjecture. Zapruder’s film by no means “solved” the Kennedy assassination. A Zapruder Nation capturing a modern incident will not guarantee a solution either. I agree that data overload can be as blinding as data absence, hence my last sentence about the “final word” being repeated, each iteration synthesized with its predecessor.

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