CBS adds nothing to the JFK debate

February 05, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LET'S SEE, last week NBC re-examined the Kennedy assassination.

The week before, it was "Inside Edition" and CNN.

Tonight, CBS and Dan Rather take their turn with "48 Hours: JFK" at 10 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).

Why all the TV interest these days?

The TV reports in part are all reactions to the debate over the 1963 assassination sparked by "JFK," the Oliver Stone movie. Stone's film says Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy and not simply the work of a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Dan Rather talks to Stone about that in tonight's show.

But, in a telephone interview this week, Rather said there are deeper reasons for all the interest. "This is a story that will not die," Rather said. "It has a worldwide known family name . . . drama . . . intrigue . . . "

It is a great story, maybe the ultimate unsolved mystery for Americans. But, like the "Unsolved Mysteries" show that Robert Stack hosts, it is also a story that is tailor-made for the on-the-cheap glut of "reality" programs, like "48 Hours." And such dollars-and-cents factors are usually what drive trends in network television.

It appears to be what's driving tonight's show, which CBS did not make available for preview. The network did, though, send out color publicity stills from the only new footage shot on-location for the show, Rather in front of the School Book Depository Building in Dallas. A young Dan Rather made his name in network TV news covering events non-stop in and around that building for four days in November 1963. "I knew during those four dark days in Dallas, 'This story will not end in my lifetime,' " he said.

What tonight's show will consist of, according to Rather and executive producer Andrew Heyward, are five segments featuring Rather and three other reporters. Rather visits Dallas and talks about the actual shooting in 1963. Then Erin Moriarty reports on the trail of evidence linking Oswald to the shooting. Phil Jones examines Oswald's life. Richard Schlesinger presents the leading conspiracy theories. The show ends with Rather interviewing Stone.

Since virtually all the film and tape is coming from specials on the assassination that CBS News has done over the years, according to Rather and Heyward, the only real cost was flying Rather and a crew to Dallas for some shots in front of the assassination site and bringing Stone to New York. This hour probably cost less than 25 percent of what it costs to make "Jake and the Fatman."

Inexpensive is not automatically bad, of course. And to their credit, Rather and Heyward admitted there was nothing new -- no "great smoking gun" -- in tonight's show. They said they mainly wanted to inject a record of "journalistic facts" into the debate.

The goal of bringing "journalistic facts" to a popular debate is praiseworthy. But Heyward goes a bit too far, when he calls tonight's "48 Hours" show a "public service."

It is not a "public service" to recycle old film and tape, fly an anchorman to Dallas so that it looks as if you are doing fresh on-scene reporting and then selling the whole package to advertisers for a greater profit than you could earn showing William Conrad in a flowered shirt. That is called show business. And any enlightenment for the viewer is strictly a byproduct.

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