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Achieving journalistic authority through narrative
Barbie Zelizer
a
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Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Communication, Temple University,
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Critical Studies in Mass Communication
7 (1990), 366-376
Achieving Journalistic Authority
Through Narrative
BARBIE ZELIZER
This paper examines how journalists have used three narrative strategies—
synecdoche, omission, and personalization—to assert their authority in their retell-
ings of the Kennedy assassination. By giving themselves a central position within the
story, journalists have helped make the assassination story a tale as much about
American journalists as about Kennedy's death.
T
HE ROLE of journalists as storytellers who adapt news events to an underlying
narrative structure (e.g., Barkin & Gurevitch, 1987; Bennett & Edelman, 1985;
Darnton, 1975; Knight & Dean, 1982) rests on their ability to legitimate themselves
through the narratives they use. It is now commonly assumed that journalists can be
biased, subjective narrators of "real world" events (Fishman, 1980; Glasgow Univer-
sity Media Group, 1976, 1980; Gitlin, 1980; Tuchman, 1978). Yet the specific
practices by which journalists in effect reconstruct events have not yet been suffi-
ciently articulated. This article considers how narrative practice allows journalists to
"authorize" their versions of events and reify their authoritative status to audiences.
Here I focus on the legitimation of journalists through narrative, not only as part
of the story but as its core. Journalists position themselves in their stories by
constructing, documenting, and perpetuating their authority to retell events. In a
society that places a premium on journalistic modes of storytelling, understanding the
means by which legitimacy is built and maintained is essential. Coverage of the
assassination of John F. Kennedy illustrates such a process.
Positing journalistic authority as an "ideal type," the study uses what Glaser and
Strauss (1967) call a "strategically chosen example" to track out its presence in both
mediated and professional discourse. The analysis is based on systematic examina-
tion of the public discourse by which journalists have recollected their part in
covering the assassination. The study employed diachronic textual analysis on
narratives taken from the printed press, professional and trade reviews, television
retrospectives, film documentaries, and books that appeared between 1963 and 1989.
Discourse about the role of journalists in covering the assassination was explored via
contemporaneous citations found in a number of public affairs indices.
1
The
Barbie Zelizer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Communication,
Temple University. This article is based on the author's doctoral dissertation (Zelizer, 1990).
The author thanks Larry Gross, Amy Jordan, Pamela Sankar, and Lois Silverman for their
comments on its various drafts.
Copyright 1990, SCA
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methodology offers a clearer picture of the major patterns by which journalistic
authority can be expected to emerge in narrative.
HOW AUTHORITY WORKS THROUGH NARRATIVE
From Weber to Habermas, theorists have long been concerned with the rational
aims that speakers address through language. Habermas, in particular, maintained
that speakers use language to effect various kinds of consensus about their activity
(Habermas, 1981, pp. xxiv-xxv). Scholars have argued that narrative provides an
underlying logic for implementing more general communicative rules and conven-
tions (e.g., Barthes, 1977; White, 1980).
2
It is thus no surprise that storytellers
employ a broad range of narrative and stylistic devices to uphold their own status and
prestige. Narrative's role in achieving authority becomes particularly relevant when
we consider the evolution of particular stories over time, as the original events become
increasingly remote. Research holds that over time, narrators are able to reposition
themselves vis-a-vis original events, thereby reconfiguring their authority (Smith,
1978; White, 1980).
These premises are directly relevant to journalists, whose work has been long
characterized as an entanglement of narrative, authority, and rhetorical legitimation
(e.g., Carey, 1986; Eason, 1986; Schudson, 1982). While all professional groups are
constituted by formalized bodies of knowledge, much of journalists' professional
authority lies not in what they know but in what they do with their knowledge.
Freidson (1986) contends that, particularly in cases where legitimation is effected
through rhetoric, concrete decisions about practical problems displace knowledge
altogether. What journalists do in covering a given story—who they interview or how
they tell the tale—thus becomes as important as the degree of knowledge they
possess.
RETELLING THE ASSASSINATION
The story of John Kennedy's assassination is a critical incident among journalism
professionals (Gerbner, 1973), who have used it to evaluate and reconsider consen-
sual notions about professional practice and appropriate boundaries of journalistic
authority. Retellings of Kennedy's assassination produced a huge body of literature,
including nearly 200 books within 36 months of his death, hundreds of periodical
pieces, television retrospectives, and at least 12 newsletters (Donner, 1979; Logan,
1967). In all media, names of individual reporters were thrust forward, often in front
of the names of their organizational employers, as emblems of authority for the events
of those four November days.
Journalists were not the only ones vying to retell what had happened, especially
when conspiracy theories gained credibility during the late 1960s. By that time, in
Dan Rather's words, "newsmen, police, intelligence agencies had examined the
evidence" (Four Days in November, 1988), as well as historians, novelists, and
screenplay writers. One suggestion that journalists would not play an understated
role was found in Newsweek correspondent Charles Roberts's early critique of
assassination buff Mark Lane. Roberts complained that Lane, who provided "the
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ACHIEVING JOURNALISTIC AUTHORITY DECEMBER 1990
only complete published list of witnesses" to the assassination, failed to include
"some 50 Washington correspondents who were on press buses" (Roberts, 1967, p.
15). As early as 1967, then, journalists promoted themselves as central players in
establishing the official record of Kennedy's assassination.
In part, journalists' attempts to connect themselves to the assassination narrative
reflected larger journalistic concerns about professionalism. To start, journalists
were attempting to consolidate themselves as a recognized and legitimate profession.
As Halberstam put it, questions of who would define news—people in positions of
power or people in the streets—challenged journalists to experiment with new
standards of professional behavior. Both "new journalism" and the alternative press
sprouted in response to their concerns (Halberstam, 1979).
The emerging channel of television news, then called a "journalistic frivolity"
(Gates, 1978, p. 5), was also beginning to reshape many givens about journalistic
performance. A few months before the assassination, television journalists were still
being denied membership in professional organizations, because they were not
considered bona fide reporters.
3
Finally, ties between the journalistic community and Kennedy's administration
helped create an atmosphere in which journalists could effectively champion their
positions as primary spokespeople for events. Kennedy was seen as having a
particular affinity for television, as suggested by his performance in the 1960 TV
debates, his introduction of the first televised news conferences, and his informal
television interviews, all of which earned him the title of "the first television
president" (Weisman, 1988, p. 2).
Against this background, the assassination narrative had implications for reporters
as professionals. They relied upon three main strategies to tell the assassination story
and, at the same time, assert their authority in its telling. These strategies—
synecdoche, omission, and personalization—were invoked both alone and in tandem
to represent the events that took place in Dallas.
SYNECDOCHE
Synecdoche—the narrative strategy by which the part is called to "stand in" for
the whole—allows journalists to borrow the authority accrued from having covered
certain events and apply it to events they did not experience. Through synecdoche,
journalists retelling their assassination accounts enlarged the story to incorporate
elements that included them within it.
For example, New York Times reporter Tom Wicker used a rifle being withdrawn
from a window in the Texas Schoolbook Depository to stand in for witnessing
Kennedy's shooting (Wicker, 1964, p. 81). A bullet being pumped into Lee Harvey
Oswald's stomach was used to signify the shooting of Kennedy's presumed killer
(Pettit, 1963). A foot sticking into the air from the back of the presidential limousine
was used to signify Kennedy's death (Mayo, 1967, p. 142).
The best illustration of synecdochic retelling is in journalists' efforts to turn their
assassination coverage from a problematic performance into a professional triumph.
Coverage of the assassination began, in Wicker's words, "when it was all over"
(Wicker, 1964, p. 81). The coverage was prompt and comprehensive but fraught
with problems: Journalists did not see Kennedy shot, sometimes did not hear
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Kennedy shot, chronicled reports on the basis of hearsay and rumor, lacked access to
recognizable and authoritative sources, and processed faulty information (Greenberg
& Parker, 1965; Payne, 1970). Proven journalistic methods—such as relying on
eyewitness status, accessing high-ranking sources, or verifying facts—were all
unhelpful; the speed with which information could be transmitted outpaced the
reporters' ability to gather it. They simply could not keep up in front of one of the
largest audiences in media history.
Journalists' professionalism was further challenged by the active involvement of
amateurs and lay persons, who gave the most detailed eyewitness testimony (Warren
Commission, 1964). Photographic documentation, including the famous Zapruder
film, was provided not by the 50-some journalists riding in the presidential motor-
cade but by local merchants, homemakers, business people, and other amateurs.
4
Coverage of the assassination was in effect a situation of journalistic failure,
falsifying journalists' authority for covering the event. Their authority had to be
constructed not through their actions but through their narratives about those
actions. They had to turn the assassination into an event that included them.
Journalists achieved this by telling the assassination story through one larger
narrative that had two high points: Oswald's murder and Kennedy's funeral.
Journalists covered Oswald's murder in what came to be called exemplary fashion.
Broadcasting magazine labeled their capture of his shooting on live camera a "first in
television history" ("Oswald shooting a first in television history," 1963, p. 46).
Similarly, in their coverage of Kennedy's funeral, journalists made themselves
masters of ceremonies who actively helped to heal the nation (Katz & Dayan, in
press). These two aspects prompted observers to tout the whole coverage as a major
triumph.
Journalists catered to these notions in their stories about the event. They made the
assassination narrative into one long story that extended from Friday, when Kennedy
was shot, until the following Monday, when he was buried. By doing so, they
overstated their successes and underplayed their failures. By treating their successful
coverage—the funeral and the shooting of Oswald—as if it represented all journalis-
tic performances of the assassination weekend, they turned aside potential criticism
of their performance.
Using parts of the narrative to signify the whole worked to their advantage.
Journalists' lack of eyewitness status in Kennedy's shooting was resolved by their
presence both at his funeral and at Oswald's murder. Issues of fact verification
appeared less salient once the fact of Kennedy's death and Oswald's role in it were
confirmed. Source accessibility played less of a role as non-official eyewitnesses,
usually bystanders, recounted what had happened. Disjunctions between the rapid
pace of information relay—made possible by wire services, radio, and television—
and the slower pace of journalists' information gathering became less central by the
time of the funeral, where little information-gathering was necessary. Therefore,
many problems of coverage on the day Kennedy was shot were resolved by the day he
was buried. Synecdoche helped journalists assume responsibility for events that went
beyond their personal experience. It also masked some of the problems implied by
certain dimensions of their coverage.
Synecdochic retellings were complicated by the variety of media involved. For
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ACHIEVING JOURNALISTIC AUTHORITY DECEMBER 1990
example, technology was portrayed as central to the accomplishment of journalistic
work, and photographs, films, and other media technologies all let journalists
reconstruct their role in the assassination in a way that let them take responsibility
for the work of others. The adoption of one long narrative, however, worked to the
specific advantage of television. It was within the parameters of the television
narrative that extended from Friday to Monday that the basic assassination narrative
took shape. The larger narrative not only told the story of Kennedy's assassination
and burial, but it conveyed the difficulties, tribulations, and triumphs of television
reporters trying to cover those events. Telling the assassination story thereby became
entwined with telling the story of its television coverage.
Synecdoche was also called into the service of intra-professional positioning in a
battle for legitimacy within the journalistic community. By rearranging their
narratives, journalists sought to uphold the legitimacy of certain reporting channels
(television and press) over others (radio), as well as the legitimacy of one reporting
community (national) over another (local). The role of (national) television was used
to signify that of the American press corps. Not only did the general journalistic
coverage substitute one set of events for another, but synecdoche helped shape
professional in-fighting, ensuring that national television and the national press were
given a central role within the assassination narrative.
Thus synecdoche took a variety of forms. It allowed journalists, particularly
television journalists, to emerge as authoritative spokespeople, regardless of what
they personally had done, seen, or heard. Similar strategies can be found in other
kinds of news. Jamieson, for instance, discusses synecdochic representation as a
predicated form of all television news (Jamieson, 1988). Bybee's analysis of gender
construction in local news implies a similar practice (Bybee, 1990). This suggests
that many features of retelling work to position journalists as omnipresent and
omniscient observers, uniquely qualified to relate events to the public.
OMISSION
A second strategy used in retelling the assassination story was omission. Like
synecdoche, it invokes activities of rearrangement, but it also offered a distinct way of
adjusting details to fit larger goals of authority. Journalists rearranged the times,
people, and places associated with the original events of the assassination. Left out of
retellings were the various roles played by radio, local media, and amateurs.
Radio offers the most glaring example of how central aspects of assassination
events were omitted from the assassination narrative. Although most television
retrospectives employed radio broadcasts as background when discussing television's
part in covering the assassination, few identified radio's coverage—either by me-
dium, network, or individual reporter. Films showed journalists huddled outside
Parkland Hospital, clutching notepads and pencils, listening to radio journalists
paraphrase intermittent wire service accounts of what had happened (JFK, 1983).
Yet no mention was made of radio's role in this scenario. Books and articles repeated
fragments from vaguely referenced "radio broadcasters." In nearly every case, the
role of radio was simply erased from journalistic recollections of the events in Dallas.
Narratives also neutralized the importance of local media, whose assistance in
covering the assassination was essential for getting the story out. Local media were
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immediately hailed for their help (Van der Karr, 1965); yet today they are
unmentioned in assassination recollections.
In other rearrangements of assassination coverage, particular people disappeared
from the story. For example, CBS reporter Eddie Barker, then local news director of
the Dallas affiliate, provided the first unconfirmed report that Kennedy was dead (
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World Listened and Watched," 1963, p. 40). Dan Rather, also at the scene, followed
Barker's dispatch with two unofficial confirmations. Only then was Kennedy's death
officially established. Barker's role in the story, however, is today mentioned in only
the most extensive and detailed assassination accounts. Emphasized instead are the
activities of the better-known and more prestigious Rather (e.g., Gates, 1978;
Matusow, 1983).
Narratives also displaced the controversy surrounding television's possible facilita-
tion of Lee Harvey Oswald's death. The intruding presence of journalists in the
corridor where Oswald was shot—the cables, equipment, sheer numbers of reporters—
generated many official and professional censures of journalistic behavior (Judg-
ment by television, 1964; Warren Commission, 1964).
5
A section of the Warren
Commission Report on
u
The Activity of Newsmen" examined the problematic
aspects of journalists' performance in Dallas (pp. 201-208). Yet today that dimen-
sion of journalistic behavior in Dallas is rarely mentioned. Contemporary renditions
of the Oswald story have instead recast it as the professional triumph that was
implicit in the scoop of having caught the murder on live camera.
Each of these omissions was linked with larger discourses about journalistic
professionalism and legitimation. Understating the role of radio, amateurs, and local
media overstated the role of television, journalism professionals, and national media.
The downplaying of television's culpability in Oswald's death supported emergent
definitions about what it meant to be a journalism professional, particularly in
television. Omission thus reflected ongoing discourses about the rightful boundaries
of journalistic authority, with the narrative that endured emphasizing the profession-
alism of national journalists, particularly television reporters, in covering the story.
Strategies of journalistic omission can be seen in other events. Kinsella's chilling
chronology of AIDS coverage documents how major events were omitted from the
news until they were seen as personally relevant to those writing the story (Kinsella,
1989). Vincent, Crow, and Davis (1989) make a similar point about irrational
explanations being omitted from coverage of airline crashes because such explana-
tions fail to uphold the goal of reassuring the public. Journalists thus assert their
authoritative status when retelling the news by omitting features of its telling that
undermine, shadow, or contradict their authority.
PERSONALIZATION
A third strategy for retelling the assassination is personalization. Reporters
recollected the assassination in terms of their own experiences.
Journalists first personalized the story by referencing their familiarity with the
events of Dallas, usually through their physical presence there during the assassina-
tion weekend. Journalists wrote and spoke of their eyewitness experiences under
titles that underscored their authority for events. Newsweek reporter Charles
Roberts detailed what he saw in an article called "Eyewitness in Dallas" (Roberts,
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ACHIEVING JOURNALISTIC AUTHORITY DECEMBER 1990
1966). Time correspondent Hugh Sidey authorized his account of the Kennedy
presidency by noting that "I was with him in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
Few correspondents who were there will ever forget that day" (Sidey, 1963, pp.
vi-vii). In one of his books, New York Times correspondent Tom Wicker noted that
his "two years as White House correspondent included coverage of President
Kennedy's assassination" (Wicker, 1968, p. 299).
Pictures from the assassination weekend were reproduced with markers encircling
reporters' heads or torsos. The article by Roberts reproduced a photograph of the
author at the LBJ swearing-in aboard Air Force One. In the picture, thick white
arrows point at the reporter's head, positioned behind that of the vice-president
(Roberts, 1966, p. 26). A book by the same author reproduced on its back flap a
picture of his Dallas press credentials (Roberts, 1967).
Television retrospectives began by setting out the November 1963 presence of their
narrators, detailing exactly where in Dallas they had been. Reporter Steve Bell, who
had been a national correspondent at the time, recollected the 25th anniversary of
Kennedy's death on the evening news in the following way:
In Omaha, Nebraska, this young reporter and his wife had just been told by the doctor that
our first child would be born any day now. Then the President was dead, and I was sent to
Dallas to cover the aftermath (John F. Kennedy Remembered, 1988).
The program then documented not only what had happened when Kennedy was shot
but what else Bell had done in Dallas. It included footage of Bell's original televised
coverage.
Journalists also documented their efforts to be present at the events in Dallas.
u
At
the time the shots were fired, I was an hour and a half out of Honolulu," wrote
Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who then turned around the air carrier
on which he was traveling and flew back to Washington (Salinger, 1983, p. 20).
Twenty-five years after the event, when television reporter Edwin Newman was
called upon to narrate NBC's opus 6V2-hour reconstruction of events, he began by
noting that
U
I myself, having been told that I would be going to Dallas, went instead
to Washington on a plane NBC had chartered" {JFK Assassination, 1988). Reporter
John Chancellor introduced another television retrospective by talking about his
experiences in Berlin at the time Kennedy was shot (The Week We Lost JFK, 1989).
Left unclear in both cases was why their experiences gave these particular reporters
special authority to speak about the events of Kennedy's death.
Personalization thus allowed media institutions to invoke the experiences of
certain journalists as legitimate reconstructions of the assassination story.
6
But by
positioning themselves in the narrative through personal experience, journalists
blurred the fact that working from afar might be a flawed way to cover the
assassination weekend. The fact that personalized narrative was held up by news
organizations as a legitimate way to recollect the assassination story reinforced its
importance. Wittingly or not, it also set up a credible framework by which to
legitimate certain journalists as narrators of the assassination story, regardless of
their actual role in covering it.
Like the other strategies of retelling, personalization does not apply only to the
Kennedy assassination. It is found in stories about Watergate, whose events have
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been linked with a blow-by-blow account of the journalistic expose (Woodward &
Bernstein, 1976) and in stories about Ronald Reagan, in which journalists have fitted
their tales to those supported by personal encounters and oral communication
(Schudson, 1990). The centrality of personalization in narrative underscores yet
another way in which narrative is used to assert the narrator's authoritative status.
CONCLUSION
This article has discussed how journalists used three narrative devices—
synecdoche, omission, and personalization—to strengthen their authority in report-
ing the Kennedy assassination. Each strategy allowed them to perpetuate forms of
the assassination tale that upheld, rather than detracted from, their own professional
positioning inside it. Assassination narratives accommodated the presence of journal-
ists as part of the tale.
These strategies of retelling were suited to larger discourses about journalism. One
was the authorization of television technology. In introducing CBS's 1988 Four Days
in November, narrator Dan Rather provided a detailed overview of the state of
television technology at the time of the assassination {Four Days in November, 1988).
When separated from the visuals that documented the story of Kennedy's death,
Rather's words told us the story not of Kennedy but of television and, more
specifically, of the rise of Dan Rather within that medium. The other discourse was a
regard for the original coverage of Kennedy's death as professional behavior. In a
nostalgic commemorative piece in Time, reporter Meg Greenfield discussed how her
professional identity dated to the day that Kennedy was killed (Greenfield, 1988, p.
98). Kennedy's death was viewed as a locus for situating the professional behavior of
journalists.
The fact that both discourses—about journalistic professionalism and television
journalism—consolidated the more general position of journalists as authoritative
spokespeople for events sheds light on the workings of journalistic authority. This
consolidation shows how, in the particular case of the Kennedy assassination,
journalists used narrative strategies to enhance their authority in ways that extended
beyond their original connection to the events of Kennedy's death. Their strategies of
retelling upheld their positioning through links to larger discourses that were
themselves invested in legitimating journalists.
And what of other events? This study suggests the centrality of narrative technique
in consolidating the authority of narrators. In events as varied as plane crashes,
unemployment, AIDS, and Watergate, narrative strategies uphold and assert the
authoritative status of storytellers. This suggests that authority takes shape not only
on the level of the sentence but in the construction of an entire story. Particularly in
stories that persist over time, the narratives that survive are those that have been
shaped and reconditioned to shed the best possible light on their tellers. Research
suggests that this is not an isolated phenomenon (e.g., Kinsella, 1989; Schudson,
1990; Vincent, Crow, & Davis, 1989). By looking at retellings of different kinds of
news stories in the ways suggested here, we may better understand, and possibly
control, the full matrix of variables that work to legitimate cultural authority. •
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NOTES
1 These included The New York Times Index, The Washington Post Index, Current Guide to
Periodical Literature, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, CBS News Archives, and NBC News
Archives. Also examined were the trade press and proceedings of various professional organizations.
2
As White argues, "once we note the presence of the theme of authority in the text, we also perceive
the extent to which the truth claims of the narrative and indeed the very right to narrate hinges upon a
certain relationship to authority per se" (1980, p. 18).
3
The main organization in question was the International Press Institute (International Press
Institute rejects move to admit radio-TV newsmen, 1963, p. 52).
4
The only professional to capture Kennedy's death on film, an AP photographer, was hailed by the
trade press as the "Lone pro on the scene where JFK was shot" (1963, p. 11).
5
Foremost here was a special session of the American Society for Newspaper Editors that brought
together the heads of 17 top news organizations to discuss what the Columbia Journalism Review called
"Judgment by television" (1964) (see also "News media act to study charges," 1964).
6
Personalizing the Kennedy assassination has become part of the more general lay experience of
remembering its events. People of all ages regularly recollect the assassination by remembering where
they were when he died. Such a phenomenon has been called a "flashbulb memory" (Neisser, 1982).
This lay popularity enhances the strategy's relevance for journalists.
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