'Who killed Martin Luther King?': Fox turns channel to tabloid TV

January 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Blame it on Oliver Stone and "JFK" or, maybe, the seemingly insatiable appetite of prime-time TV for low-cost "reality" programs that generate great profits these days.

Fox Broadcasting -- the network of Al Bundy and Bart Simpson -- is getting into the investigative journalism business this week with "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" The report, with actor Larry Fishburne as host, is to air at 9 p.m. Friday on WBFF (Channel 45).

The report suggests that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King in Memphis in 1968, was not the gunman and that King's assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the FBI. In a sense, it's "JFK" with Ray replacing Lee Harvey Oswald in the scenario.

It's also tabloid TV that makes its case by relying more on re-creations and innuendo than on journalism.

It would be easy to dismiss "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" as not worth much of a look except for the involvement of Walter E. Fauntroy, a former King aide and congressman from the District of Columbia who headed the 1978 House investigation into King's assassination. His testimony on the matter, especially on this day of remembering King, seems worth some notice.

Fauntroy, who is interviewed in the Fox report, appeared here last week at a news conference sponsored by the network to promote its show. He is writing a book about the King assassination that is to be published next year.

Fauntroy said he agreed to promote the Fox show because he believes "that James Earl Ray did not, in fact, shoot Dr. King." He said he believes that questions raised by the TV report will lead to a call for renewed investigations into the assassination, and that the public will come to the same conclusion he did: There was a conspiracy.

"The thing that's significant about this bit of journalism," Fauntroy said of the TV show, "is that . . . it (raises) some of the questions that I think beg answers."

Fauntroy said those questions include why the FBI has never tested the gun it said is the murder weapon, to see whether it had been fired. Fauntroy also said he wants to know why the FBI has never said whether Ray's fingerprints were found on the gun. He said that when his subcommittee closed its investigation in 1978, it asked the Justice Department to investigate those questions, but that this was never done.

"It still flabbergasts me," Fauntroy said, "that when our committee concludes that there was a conspiracy . . . and asks the FBI to follow up . . . it just drops it.

"I am, quite frankly -- having done the Kennedy assassination investigation as well -- troubled by the 'patsy' mechanism used by our intelligence agencies. And I do see some similarities between James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald and, perhaps, even Sirhan Sirhan," the man convicted of killing Robert Kennedy.

The news conference was filled with talk about a man seen running from the scene of the crime in 1968, alleged disinformation from intelligence agencies and trajectories of bullets. In the TV show, the "grassy knoll" of the Kennedy assassination becomes a clump of bushes across the street from the hotel balcony where King died.

Fauntroy said there needs to be more talk about those details of 25 years ago.

"I believe, on the basis of my experience in the decade of the '60s, where four leaders of a new generation were blown off the map, that we need to get to the bottom of this now," Fauntroy said.

"We need to know. We need to have these questions researched. We need to come to some conclusion as to who did it, how it was done and, most important, what we must do to see to it that no apparatus functions in this country in the '90s to blow another generation of leadership off the map."

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