``Covering the body'': The Kennedy assassination and the establishment of journalistic authority

Barbie Zelizer, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This study explores the narrative reconstruction by journalists of the story of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It examines how American journalists have turned their retellings of assassination coverage into stories about themselves, promoting themselves as the event's authorized spokespeople. At heart of their attempts to do so are issues of rhetorical legitimation, narrative adjustment and collective memory, all of which underscore how journalists establish themselves as an authoritative interpretive community.^ The study is based on systematic examination of the narratives by which journalists have told the assassination story over the 27 years since Kennedy died. Narratives were taken from public published discourse which appeared between 1963 and 1990 in the printed press, documentary films, television retrospectives, trade press and professional reviews.^ The study found that journalists' authority for the event was rarely grounded in practice, for covering Kennedy's death was fraught with problems for journalists seeking to legitimate themselves as professionals. Rather, their authority was grounded in rhetoric, in the narratives by which journalists have recast their coverage as professional triumph and given themselves a central role as the assassination story's authorized retellers. Their narratives have allowed them to recast instinctual and improvisory dimensions of practice as the mark of a true professional, while attending to larger agendas about journalistic professionalism, shifting boundaries of cultural authority and the legitimation of television news. All of this has made the Kennedy assassination a critical incident for American journalists, through which they have negotiated the hows and whys of journalistic practice, authority and community.^ This study thereby showed that journalists practice rhetorical legitimation in a circular fashion, circulating their narratives circulated in systematic and strategic ways across medium and news organization. Journalists use discourse about events to address what they see as issues central to their legitimation and consolidation as a professional interpretive community. This suggests that the function of journalistic discourse is not only to relay news but to help journalists promote themselves as cultural authorities for events of the "real world." ^

Subject Area

Journalism|Speech Communication|Mass Communications

Recommended Citation

Barbie Zelizer, "``Covering the body'': The Kennedy assassination and the establishment of journalistic authority" (January 1, 1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. Paper AAI9101236.
http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI9101236

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