Analyzing Tragedy: Coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald in November 1963

By James Palmer

This article contains content from newspapers printed in the days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

Lee Harvey Oswald

"Oswald, Lee Harvey: holding a Russian newspaper and a rifle"

“Oswald, Lee Harvey: holding a Russian newspaper and a rifle”

“Oswald, Lee Harvey: holding a Russian newspaper and a rifle”. Photo by Donald Uhrbrock—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

http://www.britannica.com/media/full/129259

Sources:

Last-Minute News: York City and County, Pa., Nov. 24, 1963

Austin American-Statesman: Austin, Texas, Nov. 23, 1963

Dallas Morning News: Dallas, Texas, Nov. 23, 1963

New York Times: New York, New York, Nov. 23, Nov. 24, 1963

On Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald changed the course of history when he aimed his single-shot rifle at President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade and assassinated him from the fifth floor of the Texas Textbook Depository in Dallas. (This theory on the assassination has not been proven, but it is the most common theory regarding Kennedy’s death.) Oswald became a household name overnight, and profiles of him were printed in newspapers across the country. After searching through vintage newspapers, microfilms, and PDF files, I became interested in comparing the coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s personal profile in the days after Kennedy’s assassination.

Last-Minute News

The Sunday edition of the York, Pa. Last-Minute News profiled Oswald with this headline on Page 3: “LEE HARVEY OSWALD . . . . A Loner…Held Radical Views…Not A Troublemaker.” While the paper was sure to make clear Oswald’s leftist sympathies and affiliations — calling him both “a Communist” and “a Marxist” and noting that his wife was Russian — the article also described him as tidy and “not a nut” (as indicated by the story’s subheads).

The paper also included a quote from Oswald’s mother, who said that she was, “. . .broken hearted about this. He is really a good boy.”

Austin American-Statesman

The Statesman focused primarily on Oswald’s Russian and Cuban affiliations in the article, “Pro-Castroite Seized As Suspect in Killing.” Writer Merriman Smith of UPI offers a physical description of Oswald and describes him as “chairman of a local ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ committee.”

After Oswald’s physical description, the article mentioned no other details about him other than his failed defection from America to Russia in 1959.

The Dallas Morning News

Francis Raffetto of the Dallas Morning News attempted to distance the city of Dallas from the tragedy with the story and its headline, “‘Act of Maniac’ Not Tied to City: Cabell.” In the story, Raffetto quotes Mayor Earle Cabell on the situation.

“There are maniacs all over the world and in every city of the world. This was a maniac. It could have happened in Podunk as well as in Dallas,” Cabell said. “I challenge anybody who said this reflects the character of the people of Dallas, he continued, “‘This was the horrible action of a mentally deranged person.’”

The New York Times

The lengthy New York Times article gets the highest marks for its profile of Oswald. In Gladwin Hill’s article, “Leftist Accused,” Hill actually has quotes from Oswald, wherein Oswald explains that he “. . .became interested about the age of 15. An old lady handed [him] a pamphlet about saving the Rosenbergs,” and that was where his interest in Marxism began. The article also includes quotes from family members, including the bewildered quote from Oswald’s mother (mentioned in the Last-Minute News article). This issue (and others associate with the Kennedy assassination) can be viewed in PDF form on their website.

Analysis

During my research, I noticed a spectrum of favor toward Lee Harvey Oswald.

Mayor Cabell’s statement differs drastically from the Last-Minute News article, in which it was reported that Oswald was lucid and coherent during questioning after Kennedy’s assassination. The New York Times article varies greatly from the Austin American-Statesman article in the amount of detail spent characterizing Oswald. Starting from the most and ending in the least favorable: the spectrum of favor proceeds as follows:

  1. Last-Minute News Nov. 24, 1963: “LEE HARVEY OSWALD . . . . A Loner…Held Radical Views…Not A Troublemaker”This article appeared to be the most sympathetic to Oswald of any that I studied. The testimonies the writer used favored the notion that Oswald was just an average, quiet young man; not a dangerous assassin.
  2. New York Times Nov. 23, 1963: “Leftist Accused”Hill’s article seemed to be the most neutral of the stories featuring Oswald. The article discussed his past, got first-hand quotes, and consulted numerous outside sources to corroborate Oswald’s character. Overall, the Times article best explained the many facets of this tragic event in history.
  3. Austin American-Statesman Nov. 23, 1963: “Pro-Castroite Seized As Suspect in Killing”The goal of this article seemed to be to create as strong an association as possible between Oswald and Communism. The Statesman focused mainly on Oswald’s Marxist ideas and his defecting to Russia in 1959. It did not quote family members in any story I came across.
  4. Dallas Morning News Nov. 23, 1963: “‘Act of Maniac’ Not Tied to City: Cabell”This article was clearly meant to be a soapbox for the Dallas mayor to attack and dissociate from Oswald. The article features several quotes from Mayor Cabell, mainly vocalizing his criticism of Oswald’s Communist associations and beliefs. The article appears to be meant as a blanket attack not just on Oswald’s actions, but on Communism as a whole. This is why I viewed this article as least favorable toward Oswald.

Author Credit

Last-Minute News: The article printed in the Sunday edition of the Last-Minute news was a syndicated story done by the Associated Press. No byline was provided for this article.

The New York Times: Gladwin Hill was a writer for the New York Times from 1946 to 1968. The article mentioned in this one was among his most noteworthy pieces.

Austin American-Statesman: Merriman Smith was a UPI reporter during the 1960s. His most famous work was during the Kennedy assassination.

The Dallas Morning News: Francis Raffetto was a writer for the Dallas Morning News in the 1960s.