Wednesday, April 8, 2009

“We Don’t Want Another Oswald!”: The Media’s Reaction to Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassination

The panic and confusion following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy the night he won the Democratic nomination in California translates to the television and written coverage of his death. Because the assassination occurred during an important event, the media was able to provide the public with a shaky yet strong understanding of the night that RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, an unstable man who claimed that he wanted more attention directed towards Palestinians.
The public first found out Kennedy was assassinated through the TV news. An article published by Time on June 14, 1968 titled “What Was Going On” relays how the media reacted. The article has no byline; it was probably a group effort by the editors.
Because the press was so hotly covering the celebration, members of the media became subjects of news articles and radio and TV broadcasts. Members of the media who had been injured or near the assassination understood the necessity of eyewitness testimony more than a normal person would. Thus, elaborate and panicked accounts were available for newspapers and networks.
An especially notable—and widely used—description came from Andrew West, who worked for a radio network. West recorded his reaction to the shooting while it was happening. According to the Time article, he said:
“Senator Kennedy has been . . . Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It ispossible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has . . . Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh myGod! . . . I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired theshot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer! Hold him! We don't want another Oswald! Hold him, Rafer . . . The Senator is on the ground! He's bleeding profusely . . . The ambulance has been called for, and this is a terrible thing! . . . Ethel Kennedy is standing by. She is calm, a woman with a tremendous amount of presence . . . The shock is so great my mouth is dry . . . We are shaking as is everyone else. I do not know if the Senator is dead or if he is alive . . ."
The way West spoke about the shooting and how the Time article was written depicts how devastated and shocked the media was. Time’s respect for and mourning of the figure reflects a loss of hope that even the media could not hide. There were few attempts to be objective. The article also reflects how much the media wanted to make sense of the assassination and deliver that understanding to the public.
Following the assassination, the print media focused more on the aftermath and the chronology than the shooting itself. On June 6th, a day after the assassination, the Los Angeles Times wrote a story titled “Despair Grips Youth in Wake of Shooting: Hopes for New Politics Dashed.” The press accurately depicted the youth’s devastation. “I have a sort of gut feeling, deep down inside, that this shooting and whatever happens to Kennedy will make young people completely unreachable,” one girl said. In many following articles, the focus was more on the despair people felt; this despair seemed to be shared by the media and proponents for changeas well.
In an interview almost a year after the assassination, Sirhan claimed that he wished the president was still alive, but he believed that “the cause of the Palestinian Arab people was worth both Senator Kennedy’s life and his own.” In an article published by the New York Times “Sirhan voices regret at having killed Kennedy,” the focus of the article was more about the fact that Sirhan wished the Senator was still alive to be President than that Sirhan, in his mentally unstable mind, assassinated Kennedy in order to draw attention to injustice in Palestine (Israel becoming a state is also one of the top 100 stories of the century). Although the article contains his comments about the Palestinian people, the headline and the pull quote—the parts of the article that receive the most attention—are about him wishing Kennedy could have been President.

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