- Authorizing Memory, Remembering Authority
“Best Evidence is the story of my journey in search of the truth about the autopsy [of John F. Kennedy]. When my literary agent first read this manuscript, he said, ‘You have written a book about authority.’ No, I said, I’ve written a book about the assassination. I didn’t understand, but he did. This is a book about authority because it delves into the process by which we—as individuals and as a society—decide what is true and what is false; what is to be believed and what is not” (Lifton 1992, xviii).
Michael Schudson’s Watergate in American Memory and Barbie Zelizer’s Covering the Body are quite removed from the often heady world of Kennedy assassination researchers, a world in which David Lifton is a lofty, though somewhat controversial figure. Schudson is a sociologist, Zelizer is in a rhetoric and communication department, and neither is interested in the minutiae of medical evidence and the geopolitical speculation that are at the heart of Warren Commission critics. However, they would both agree with Lifton that the debates around such “critical incidents” as the Kennedy assassination(s) and Watergate are indeed as much about authority as they are about “truth” and the never ending and seemingly impossible search for it. While Schudson and Zelizer have written very different books on these events and their implications in their own time and in the present, their projects are quite similar and are worthy of comparison for the study of social memory and contemporary culture.
Specifically, they share the purpose of attempting to use the very problematic events that they discuss in order to make arguments about contemporary American culture. Schudson is interested in “collective memory,” and how societies institutionalize memories, and particularly historical memories, in cultural forms and social practices. Zelizer traces the establishment of journalistic authority in and over the Kennedy assassination—the title phrase, “covering the body,” refers to the actual media “coverage” of Kennedy and his death (ironically, the term was used before the assassination to refer to those whose beat was following the President to Dallas or wherever he went). Both authors, then, are using these events as case studies for projects that seek to move beyond mere historical chronicles, and this movement beyond history and into memory and authority are among the main strengths and weaknesses of these books. These were and remain, as both authors document, important events in recent American history and memory, and their reverberations throughout politics and culture are still felt; in the past year, for example, the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in was commemorated by a CBS documentary, while a “Director’s Cut” of Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK has just been released on video, with a number of scenes “restored” from the shorter version that met the time constraints imposed by Time-Warner. As powerful historical events that took place at crucial conjunctures in recent American history, Watergate and the Kennedy assassination can tell us much about such diverse topics as the function of memory and the practice of journalism; however, as such, these events can and often do exceed such attempts to “use” them. In other words, because there is far more to Watergate and JFK’s assassination than the rather specific theoretical and political interests with which these authors come to these events, their attempts to somewhat sharply focus, or to cut off a discursive slice of an “event” in order to examine “American Culture,” at times yields frustrating results.
Zelizer is most interested in the “interpretive community” of journalists, and how the “cultural authority” of (certain) journalists is asserted and maintained. “Journalism,” in this sense, refers to more than merely the printed page or the broadcast; it comprises the discursive practices authorized and legitimated in professional meetings of journalists, journalism textbooks, codes of professionalism, journalists’ folklore, memoirs, historical accounts, etc. Zelizer argues that the overarching narrative of...