Liberal Radio Host/Lawyer Perpetuates Slander That Dallas Schoolchildren Cheered News of JFK's Death

January 16th, 2011 10:51 AM

How do we know that grade-school students in Dallas spontaneously cheered the news that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in their city?

Because it's been repeated ad infinitum for almost half a century. Therefore it must be true, right?

It's a belief that's taken on the aura of holy writ to liberals, thanks to propapandists like radio host and lawyer Mike Papantonio in preserving its mythology for each new generation of true believers.

You'd think someone who practices law would know better. Then again, you might not.

Appearing on Ed Schultz's radio show Thursday, "Ring of Fire" radio program co-host Papantonio talked about President Obama's remarks at the Tucson memorial service and drew a parallel between current-day political rancor and the toxic divisions of the early 1960s --

PAPANTONIO: As I listened to him, I remembered something, though. I remembered that hate is like ink in water in the way it spreads. And I wish, you know, I know he had to be careful on the way that he dealt with this issue, but it's an important issue. And that is the way hate spreads. I think about the 1960s. You had right-wing billionaires fueling hatred against John F. Kennedy, the same way, I mean exactly, Ed, the same way they're doing it today. You had, crowd hatred doesn't just happen, it usually takes money to egg it on. And that's what we saw in the '60s with John F. Kennedy. When Secret Service, Ed, begged Kennedy not to go to Dallas, it's because they feared for his life. It wasn't because they expected a Lee Harvey Oswald-type of assassination.

As in, left-wing "type" of assassination. Decades later, liberals still shrink from the specifics --

PAPANTONIO: They were worried about the millions that billionaire H.L. Hunt and Fred Koch, you know, the nut doesn't fall far from the tree, even back then, Fred Koch had spent millions organizing hate groups, creating TV commercials and and even distributing hundreds of thousands of wanted posters. I want to send you one of these posters, I have one in front of me. It's like a post office poster for criminals. I have a copy of the poster and here's what it says, basically. And it was paid for, understand this, it was paid for by the same people who are fomenting hate in America today.

Pronounced by Papantonio as "formenting" --

PAPANTONIO: This just happens to be the daddy or the uncle or the granddaddy. You know, the Koch family, it just goes on. They were led by H.L. Hunt. They created this poster that had a mug shot of John F. Kennedy that says, I swear to God, it's a mug shot and underneath it says, 'Wanted for Treason.' And the only thing that was missing in that poster was Palin crosshairs on John F. Kennedy's head.

This obviously does not absolve Palin for her complicity in Kennedy's death, albeit long after the fact --

PAPANTONIO: The poster says that the president is wanted for treason against the United States. Now, understand, hundreds of thousands of these posters were distributed all over Dallas, all over Texas. They said he was a communist, that he subverted the Constitution, that he supported racial communist riots in America because of his civil rights stand. They said he was anti-Christian and promoted anti-Christian rulings by the Warren Court, that he was a despicable liar. Now, if you think about the history of what was happening then, you had H.L. Hunt and Fred Koch, who helped finance and organize, people don't realize this, they don't understand that Fred Koch helped organize and finance the John Birch Society, the same crowd that he had out in the streets in Texas weeks before John F. Kennedy shows up in  Dallas. They're flying Confederate flags, they're screaming that Kennedy should be shot because he loved African-Americans, only they were much more ignorant and hostile in the way they talked about African-Americans, you can imagine. As a matter of fact, when the P.A. system in public schools in Texas announced that Kennedy had been murdered, children as early as, as young as fourth graders applauded because they had been so brainwashed with hate. No doubt those are the same Fox News regulars we see today, age-wise it's about right. Like fathers, like son, the Koch brothers have simply relaunched the same murder and hate campaign that they had in the '60s.

One wonders if Lee Harvey Oswald enlisted in this "murder and hate campaign" after he returned from defecting to the Soviet Union and before he tried fleeing to Cuba. Both countries, needless to say, major bastions of right-wing hatred.

Moments later, Papantonio, who co-hosts "Ring of Fire" with Robert Kennedy Jr. and Sam Seder, elaborated on Dallas children's alleged exuberance in response to JFK's death --

PAPANTONIO: Along with everything that they had in the '60s, along with the Hunt brothers and the Koch brothers and the rallies and all of that knuckle-dragging stuff, they now today in America have 53 million Americans listening to talk radio. Ninety-one percent of that radio, Ed, is neo-nut hate talk, 2,500 hours of conservative radio talk every single day, compared to 250 hours of progressive talk.

SCHULTZ (in rare flash of rationality): So it has nothing to do with the (Tucson) shooting, you're not saying that. You're saying it has a lot to do with the mood ...


SCHULTZ: ... and how we are at each others' throats in this country.

PAPANTONIO: Exactly. We've created this same thing. Can you imagine, fourth graders standing up and applauding that the president of the United States had been assassinated?

Wow, this tale's getting taller by the minute. Next he'll be telling us about conga lines in school cafeterias.

The suspicious assertion about Dallas schoolchildren originated with a specific journalist, one whose career was derailed decades later after another spurious claim, this time alleging that future president George W. Bush had dodged National Guard service -- an ambitious young CBS reporter named Dan Rather.

Then chief of the new CBS News bureau in New Orleans, Rather was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 to cover the Kennedy visit. In his 1977 book "The Camera Never Blinks: Adventures of a TV Journalist," here's how he recounts the origins of the story about Dallas schoolchildren --

A wire service had moved a story earlier that the youngsters at a Dallas grade school had cheered when the news of the assassination was announced over the public address system. The story was written in such a way as to leave the impression that Dallas was so Right wing, so filled with meanness, that little children could celebrate the death of a liberal President.

Well, school kids applaud almost anything that comes through a loudspeaker: a fire drill, the lunch menu, notice of a lost library book. But this was a story that received heavy play around the country. (emphasis added) So on Tuesday morning Hughes Rudd and a CBS camera crew went to the school where the incident occurred and interviewed some of the teachers and students. Later we had an in-house council on whether to even use the piece. The discussion was private, but some of the KRLD (CBS television and radio affiliate in Dallas) staff, through Barker (Eddie Barker, KRLD news director), made clear their belief that the original story was unfair to Dallas and ought to be shelved, quickly.

Frankly, I agreed with them. To my recollection, Rudd was lukewarm and insisted, "Don't let whatever time we spent on it be a factor. As far as I'm concerned we can drop it." At any rate the piece did run. The call was close, but from our point of view the story was balanced. And fair. They are not always one and the same. But the KRLD people, to a soul, thought it was a gratuitous story that kept alive an impression of Dallas that was cheap and damaging.

The film appeared that night, Tuesday, on the CBS Evening News. Within minutes Barker flew into the newsroom and braced himself. His face was flushed. He was visibly irritated. Keep in mind that he had been working like a deckhand himself, had kept the same blinding hours, had been under the same and more complicated pressure.

He glared across the room and said, "Out. All of you. Out."

Whereupon Barker, for reasons that will momentarily become clear, ordered Rather and his crew to leave the KRLD newsroom immediately.

In an obscene omission, Rather neglected to mention that he was the reporter who brought the dubious story to a national audience, and did so on live television.

Rather's shabbiness in this episode was described in devastating detail by Philip Chalk in a March 14, 2005 article for The Weekly Standard, titled "Wrong from the Beginning: Even in 1963, Dan Rather was a poor excuse for a newsman" --

... Barker is widely credited with first reporting on air that the president was dead, having received word through a doctor acquaintance directly from the hospital ER. Rather, then based in Dallas as a reporter for CBS's national news broadcast and working out of Barker's newsroom, later took credit for the scoop, Barker says. The error is repeated in historical accounts often enough to annoy the now-retired Barker, though he says the falsehood was later acknowledged by Rather.

It was a different lie -- one delivered on national television, and at the expense of children -- that caused Rather trouble at the time. As reporters from around the world descended on the Texas city, Rather went on the air with a local Methodist minister who made a stunning claim: Children at Dallas's University Park Elementary School had cheered when told of the president's death.

The tale was perfect for the moment, reinforcing the notion among distant media elites that Dallas was a reactionary "City of Hate." It slyly played to a local audience, too: The school was in upper-income University Park, one of two adjacent municipal enclaves that shared a school district and a reputation for fiercely protected, lily-white privilege. Finally, for the ambitious Rather -- a native Texan and then a Dallas resident -- the account represented the very sort of revealing, local dirt that throngs of out-of-town competitors would have to work far harder to get.

Except that it wasn't true, and Rather knew it, Barker says.

Approached earlier by the same minister with what was a second-hand account, Barker himself had run the story by the school's principal and some teachers, all of whom denied it outright. Because of the shooting, which took place at 12:30 p.m., the principal had decided to close the school early, though without telling the students why. The children at the school -- including three of Barker's own -- were merely happy to be going home early, he was told. There couldn't have been any spontaneous cheering at the news of Kennedy's murder, because no such news had been announced.

Undaunted, the dogged minister -- "a very, very strong liberal and a very, very strong Kennedy supporter," Barker says -- moved on to Rather.

"Rather came to me, and I said, 'My kids are in school there, and I checked it out, and there's not a damn thing to it," says Barker. "He said, 'Well, great -- I'll just forget it.' But instead of forgetting it, he went out and did this gut job on Dallas and its conservatism," with the preacher's story at the center of his report.

With the discredited account likely to be challenged by the local affiliate's editors before being fed to New York, Rather sidestepped a customary film-editing session with Barker and arranged to file the report live instead, Barker says. "And so here's Dan with the preacher, telling this story about kids at UP cheering when told the president was dead."

Livid at being lied to, Barker laid into Rather as soon as he returned to the newsroom, expelling the reporter and all his national-news colleagues from the building on the spot. "I said 'Get the hell out of here -- you and this whole damn bunch!'  "he says.

Barker's local TV and radio crews scrambled to arrange on-air interviews with teachers to rebut the story, but the lie had already traveled halfway around the world and would become an enduring part of the JFK assassination lore.

At the end of The Weekly Standard article, Chalk is described as a "member of the University Park Elementary class of 1974" and the magazine's production director.

It is no exaggeration to point out that Rather's coverage of the Kennedy assassination made his career. Within weeks he had a new beat -- covering the White House for CBS News. That Rather accomplished this through character assassination has not passed unnoticed. Nor that Papantonio has joined the ranks of Rather's co-conspirators.