CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 7 . . . . October 14, 2011
Mysteries in the Archives:1963 John F. Kennedy’s Funeral.
Julien Gaurichon (Director). Florence Fanelli (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
26 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153B 9909 273.
Preschool-grade 1 / Ages 3-6.
Review by Joanne Peters.
If you are of a certain age, you know where you were on Friday, November 22, 1963. Whether you were at school or at college, at home, or at work, I’m willing to wager (and I’m not a betting sort of gal) that you know what you were doing and where you were when, suddenly, radio and television broadcast the news that the youngest American President, the first Roman Catholic to hold that office, had been gunned down in a Dallas motorcade. I know where I was: home from school, having a macaroni and cheese lunch in front of the television, when the cartoons suddenly stopped and a News Bulletin flashed onto the screen. I was only in Grade 4, but even I knew something major was happening. My mom burst into tears, and my dad said “No, that’s impossible . . .”
In the next three days, like the rest of the world, my family and I stationed ourselves in front of our black and white television, and when I returned to school on Monday, my class (along with the Grade 5’s and 6’s) enjoyed the rare privilege of watching the state funeral, on television, in class! We weren’t alone – during the days that followed the assassination, the American broadcast networks – ABC, NBS, CBS – gave every moment of air time to coverage of the aftermath of the assassination. Mysteries in the Archives: 1963 John F. Kennedy’s Funeral documents that extraordinary collaborative effort which marked a turning point in twentieth-century news journalism.
Since then, the public knows instinctively to turn on the television (if yours is one of those rare families which don’t have the machine running non-stop) to see news of the latest world tragedy: a hurricane (Katrina devastating New Orleans, 2005), a space launch gone horribly wrong (the Challenger debacle, 1986), a princess in a car accident (1997, Diana, the Princess of Wales), and, of course, planes flying into skyscrapers in New York (September 11, 2001). And, continual coverage is an expectation, along with non-stop “play-by play” of the many details attending the event.
So, how did we become conditioned to behave in this fashion? Marshall McLuhan once said that “the medium is the message,” and television media have certainly become the message. This documentary shows how a national and family tragedy became a “media event” and completely changed how such a tragedy would be covered by the non-print, (and subsequently, electronic) news media. To begin with, television eclipsed print media – while the newspapers were full of content, many of the photos were stills of televised news, such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One, standing beside his wife, and the late President’s stricken widow. Later, when President Kennedy lies in state, we see not only the endless filing past of ordinary citizens paying their respects, but also, the members of the Kennedy family, including Jacqueline Kennedy’s kissing the coffin, and holding onto her two very young children, who, like any children of that age, are mildly bewildered by all that is happening around them.
On the day of the funeral, 60 cameras, the largest-ever commitment of media technology and news staff, covered the event, from the funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC, (in which commentary is provided by a priest, hired by the broadcasters so that viewers, largely non-Catholic, will know what is happening during the funeral service), to the final internment at Arlington National Ceremony, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
Throughout the funeral, viewers felt as it they were “there”, but, in reality, camera footage was carefully selected, camera angles chosen thoughtfully, and whether by the choice of the media or Kennedy family members (and truly, the Kennedys knew how to work the media), moments such as Jackie’s courageous choice to walk the funeral procession route, her brother-in-law’s decision to stay with her and support her throughout the funeral, and her final lighting of the eternal flame – all of these made for moving and powerful television coverage.
JFK’s funeral was not the first presidential funeral to receive national and international press. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, his body was taken from Georgia to Washington, DC, via rail. Newsreels showed citizens lining the tracks to pay their respects. JFK’s funeral was different: television allowed citizens to experience the event in their own living rooms, without making that personal journey to railway sidings across the nation.
So, what do we learn from this documentary? If you didn’t think that news coverage of personal and national tragedies is “managed”, well, think again, and again, and again. Certainly, the gap between the media and its viewers diminished drastically after JFK’s funeral, and in subsequent decades, it seems as if viewers couldn’t get enough of minute-by-minute coverage. The writers and producers of this documentary stay away from the conspiracy theories, but they do allude to them, and unless a disaster is a natural one (such as a hurricane), with unexpected deaths of celebrities, conspiracy theories are almost an expectation. But, what of the “mysteries” alluded to in the title of the series? Well, I think that a little bit of “artistic license” has been taken – certainly, there are unexpected events with which journalists had to deal, but do they qualify as “mysteries”? I’m hard to convince.
However, there is no question that non-print media coverage of JFK’s funeral changed major events, both for audience and for journalists. After JFK, newsreels faded into obscurity; newspaper and magazine coverage continued, but everyone knew that, when tragedy struck, up-to-the-minute coverage came from television and secondarily, radio. That three major American networks were willing to cooperate for the biggest news story of the decade might be a bit of a mystery, but I think that calling this a “mystery in the archives” is an overstatement.
Teachers of media and journalism classes will certainly find much useful material in this documentary; camera angles, the use of colour film versus black and white, and selection of what or who to film offers much to consider. However, students will have to be much older than the 12+ suggested as the recommended audience age in order to grasp any of this. I wonder if 12-year-olds will even know who JFK was, never mind understand the impact of the coverage of his funeral. Still, this funeral was an iconic event, forever changing media coverage of an event which is, at once, deeply personal, and highly public.
Joanne Peters, a recently retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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