Selling Conspiracy Theory


December 22, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Washington -- It's easy to understand why an otherwise respectable publication like Time magazine would devote nine full pages -- a fifth of its news hole in the current issue -- to the new movie about John Kennedy's assassination.

It's almost as easy to see why publishing houses would bother to print yet another book about the alleged conspiracy surrounding XTC that crime. But why would Time's competitor, Newsweek, put such a piece of fakery on its cover? Why would the New York Times and Washington Post give the time of day to such a sham? I am not about to guarantee that there was no conspiracy to murder Kennedy. His own efforts to have Fidel Castro assassinated created a motive to have Kennedy killed first. But nothing in this latest surge of exploitation proves anything at all.

Nevertheless, Time runs a five-page review/dissection of the movie "JFK," plus a three-page interview with the director, Oliver Stone, plus an essay by Lance Morrow.

Why so much attention to a movie in a week when major stories are breaking around the world -- indeed, in any week?

In Time's case, it's simple: "JFK" was produced by the company formed by a merger of Time Inc. and Warner Bros. That merger created a multi-billion-dollar debt load, which the conglomerate is reducing very slowly. Considering the advertising slump, Time magazine cannot be expected to make a major contribution during this recession. But it can help the movie studio do just that.

Why does Carroll & Graf publish another book about the alleged conspiracy, this one exploring "the role of J. Edgar Hoover"? And why, oh why does another publishing house print yet another book by that professional conspiracy theorist, Mark Lane? The answer, of course, is just why Mr. Lane keeps writing them: because there is a steady market for conspiracy books, good or bad.

Of Mr. Stone, the film director, the Times's reviewer says he is like "Fibber McGee opening the door to an overstuffed closet. He is buried under all the facts, contradictory testimony, hearsay and conjecture that he would pack into the movie." Yet that august paper runs three pieces on said movie, one of them a long op-ed article by Mr. Stone himself.

History, the director says, "may be too important to be left to newsmen." He asserts that "democracy is not some illusion and must be based on truth." Truth, obviously, is his Hollywood grab-bag of every disproven, unproven theory yet offered, plus a grand conspiratorial alliance out of his own imagination.

Time magazine's writers have a delicate job. After playing the movie against the historical evidence, the reviewer caves in and says, " 'JFK' is only a movie . . . and on its own pugnacious terms -- the only terms Oliver Stone will ever accept -- a terrific one."

In the magazine interview, Mr. Stone, the purveyor of truth, admits that facts are beneath him. "It's up to the artist himself to determine his own ethics by his own conscience," he says -- and his conscience is totally clear. Moving right along, he asserts unblinkingly that "there's no doubt" that the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy "are linked."

But who is guilty? "Cold War money . . . military-industrial money . . . nuclear money . . . the covert state, the invisible government. . . . It's a moving, fluid thing, a series of forces at play. It's not necessarily individuals . . . there's more going on than is ever written about in the newspapers."

To conclude a thoughtful essay, Time's Mr. Morrow also softens: "let a hundred flowers bloom, even if some of them are poisonous and paranoid. A culture is what it remembers, and what it knows."

The problem is that so many Americans remember nothing about 1963, and all they know is what they see in the movies.


Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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