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CNN's Conspiracy Bias in the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination

Not so long ago the mainstream media dismissed far-fetched tales of conspiracy and marginalized conspiracy theorists to the outer reaches of news-land. News organizations knew that every now and then bogus "witnesses" would appear claiming to reveal low skullduggery in high places. Their stories nearly always lacked substance and corroborative proof and were rightly dismissed.

Now major news organizations appear to be leading the charge.

In 2006 the BBC’s flagship new program Newsnight ran a twelve-minute story about an Irish screenwriter’s expose of purported CIA involvement in the Robert Kennedy assassination. Despite numerous challenges from this author, it took the producers more than a year to finally produce a follow-up program that questioned Shane O’ Sullivan’s allegations.

It appears CNN are making the same type of mistake in publishing a story without verifying the true facts of the case. On April 30, 2012, CNN published a story about claims made by an RFK assassination "witness," Nina Rhodes-Hughes. The article was co-authored by Brad Johnson and Michael Martinez. The article stated that, “…a long overlooked witness to the murder is telling her story: She heard two guns firing during the 1968 shooting and authorities altered her account of the crime."

The CNN story also cited RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan’s attorney, William Pepper, who said Rhodes-Hughes, “…actually had heard a total of twelve to fourteen shots fired”. Johnson and Martinez provided readers with additional statements from pro-conspiracy advocates who alleged more than thirteen shots were fired in the Ambassador Hotel pantry the night RFK was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Aside from the fact that Rhodes-Hughes’s story has never been "overlooked" and was recently examined in my book The Forgotten Terrorist, Johnson and Martinez have further muddied the waters by claiming “at least four other people told authorities in 1968 that they heard what could have been more than eight shots”.

Ear-witness testimony has never established a scenario in which thirteen shots were even possible. FBI files show all the pantry witnesses, with the exception of only a few, never heard more than eight shots and those few who guessed they heard further shots did not put the number beyond ten. The FBI files, furthermore, show that no one who had been in the pantry when Robert Kennedy was shot told the FBI or LAPD that anywhere near thirteen shots had been fired. Only one alleged pantry witness gave this number, Nina Rhodes-Hughes, but she never said this at the time she made her original statement in 1968. In 1968 she said she heard “eight distinct shots.” In 1992 Rhodes told conspiracy writers that she heard from ten to fourteen shots.

Rhodes-Hughes also made the allegation that the FBI had altered her 1968 statement, but the CNN reporters never questioned why the agency would alter her statement but leave intact the statements provided by a handful of other witnesses who guessed more than eight shots had been fired.

According to the FBI files most of the estimated seventy-seven witnesses in the pantry could not remember how many shots had been fired and described the gunshots in terms of "a number of shots," "a series of firecrackers," "several shots" or "a number of shots in rapid succession." However, of those witnesses amongst the seventy-seven who ventured an opinion about how many shots had been fired, all but a few put the number of shots at eight or less.

There is also a fair amount of consistency amongst many ear-witnesses as to the grouping of the shots -- first one, two or three shots then a pause followed by a rapid succession of shots. Kristi Witker said, “People were running in all directions. . . . There were two very distinct series of pop-pop-pop . . . pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Three pops, then five - eight in all. . . . I saw the gunman standing, pointing the gun and firing.”

Bill Eppridge said he heard two shots in very rapid succession. According to the FBI report, “Eppridge at first thought these were fireworks as they had been in Chinatown, San Francisco, the day before and there were many fireworks there. There was a pause after the second shot and people were scattering. Eppridge realized that what he thought were fireworks were actually shots. He ran forward instinctively thinking he had better count the shots. He counted a total of six shots.”

The above reports indicating there were less than eight shots fired clearly outnumber the examples provided by Johnson and Martinez and it begs the question -- why would they choose to cite only a few witnesses who thought they heard more than eight shots against the host of examples above who put the number at eight or less?

In fact, two of the reporters’ four examples also do not indicate more than eight shots were fired and a third "witness" they cite has been inconsistent in his accounts of the assassination. Jesse Unruh was clearly confused when he stated, “….I don't really quite remember how many reports there were.” Unruh told the LAPD, “It sounded to me like somewhere between five and ten.” Frank Mankiewicz stated, “I probably would have said ten. But I'm sure it was less than that.” A third witness cited, Booker Griffin, told a conspiracy writer in 1987 that he had observed a second gunman. However, in his 1968 interviews with the LAPD he only said the sounds of the shooting appeared to suggest more than one gun.

Johnson and Martinez stated in their article that an audio expert, Philip Van Praag, told them he had examined a sound recording of the RFK assassination, the Pruszynski Tape, and that thirteen sounds had been electronically detected on the recording and they were "gunshots." The reporters, however, did not mention two examinations of the tape recording made by two other teams of experts. In their story Johnson and Martinez simply allow that Van Praag’s analysis, “….is not universally accepted by acoustic experts.”  

Brad Johnson corresponded in 2006-2007 with me and RFK researcher Steve Barber with regard to the examination of the Pruszynski tape. Johnson was informed that two teams of experts had concluded there were no more than eight shots on the tape. The first team, based in the United States, was comprised of three people who have been recognized as audio experts -- Steve Barber, Dr. Chad Zimmerman, and Michael O’Dell. Steve Barber was nationally recognized as the person who first identified the flaws in the work of the acoustics team hired by the House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate an audio tape of the JFK assassination. Barber’s findings led to a further examination of the JFK assassination tape by the National Academy of Sciences, a team of acoustics experts who found the HSCA team to be in error. Michael O’Dell was a technical analyst who worked with the Ramsay Panel when it examined the acoustics evidence in the JFK assassination.

Brad Johnson was also aware that the second team was made up of two employees of a British acoustics company based in York England, J.P French Associates. It is the United Kingdom’s longest established independent forensic speech and acoustics laboratory. The company prepares reports for the defense and prosecution in criminal cases on speaker identification, transcription, authentication and enhancement of recordings, acoustic investigation, and other related areas, including the analysis of recorded gun shots, and is regularly involved in some of the most important and high profile cases in the United Kingdom and around the world.

Philip Harrison led the British team comprised of himself and Professor Peter French, a colleague and lecturer in forensic speech and audio analysis at the University of York. Harrison has worked on over one thousand such cases.

Harrison analyzed the Pruszynski tape using three different methods, both independently and simultaneously. These involved (1) listening analytically to the recording via high quality headphones, (2) examining visual representations of the recording’s waveform (oscillographic displays), and (3) analyzing spectrograms (plots of sound energy across frequency over time), all using specialized computer software. Harrison’s findings were confirmed by Peter French. They found no more than eight shots were present on the recording.

Both the U.K. and U.S. teams had independently examined the tape, then Barber and Harrison consulted with each other.

Brad Johnson knew about the British and American acoustics teams yet failed to include the results of their research in his story. Furthermore, Johnson and Martinez were remiss in not informing their readers of the differences in the qualifications of the teams of "experts." Philip Van Praag is not an acoustics expert. He is an audio engineer. Acoustics and audio sciences are two totally different fields of study. In examining sounds, acoustics evidence always tops audio evidence. This is the reason the 1976-1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations hired acoustics experts and not audio engineers.

The CNN reporters also cite, without examination or criticism, a statement made by William Pepper, Sirhan’s attorney. Pepper said, “….the Senator was almost directly facing Sirhan just before he took three shots, from behind, in his back, and behind his right ear at powder burn range, making it impossible for Sirhan to have been Robert Kennedy's shooter…”

Johnson and Martinez do not provide the counter-arguments to this scenario which have been available for many years. Many of the twelve eyewitnesses who were close to RFK when he was shot did indeed state that Sirhan was anywhere from three to twelve feet away from RFK. However, as author Dan Moldea discovered in his book The Killing of Robert Kennedy, the majority of the 12 witnesses gave estimates of muzzle distance based only on the first shot and did not see Sirhan lunging at the Senator. Vincent DiPierro clearly saw Sirhan place his gun near the Senator’s head as he has often stated. “It would be impossible for there to be a second gun,” DiPierro told reporter Ron Kessler in 1974, “I saw the first shot. Kennedy fell at my feet. His blood splattered on me. I had a clear view of Kennedy and Sirhan.”

DiPierro also stated, “…Sirhan… was three feet away but the muzzle of the gun (in his outstretched arm) couldn’t be more than three to five inches away from his head.” According to DiPierro, Sirhan managed to stretch his arm around Karl Uecker who was escorting Kennedy through the pantry. Uecker was facing away from RFK when Sirhan reached around him to place the gun at RFK’s head.

DiPierro’s account is supported by other witness statements, particularly those of Boris Yaro and Juan Romero, who had been very close to RFK during the shooting. Boris Yaro stated RFK was shot at "point blank range." Romero, who had been shaking hands with RFK when the shots rang out initially said the gun was a "yard away" but in a 2003 Los Angeles Times interview he said, “(Sirhan) put out his hand to the Senator’s head. . . . Then I see the guy put a bullet in the senator’s head.…”

The statements of Yaro, Romero and DiPierro are supported by the wife of writer George Plimpton. Freddy Plimpton “….saw an arm go up towards Senator Kennedy’s head, but did not see a gun, heard shots and it was obvious to her that Senator Kennedy had been shot….She saw Sirhan very clearly. She saw his arm up toward Senator Kennedy’s head ….”

It is quite evident CNN’s sins of omission reveal the nature of their conspiracy bias and the reporting by Johnson and Martinez is clearly beneath the standards CNN purportedly uphold. The information provided above demonstrates CNN should now hold an internal investigation into why professional journalists on their staff have skewered an important historical story in the interests of sensationalism and of how they managed to do this without any apparent editorial oversight.