NYT: History Channel Documentary Implicating LBJ in JFK's Death Was "Harebrained"

Roundup: Talking About History

Editorial in the NYT (Feb. 13, 2004):

The History Channel, an entertainment outlet with a serious name to live up to, has finally agreed to reconsider its"documentary" charging that Lyndon Johnson conspired to have President John Kennedy assassinated. It's about time.

The channel initially promoted the show and its ludicrous accusation by darkly announcing that"the roots of the crime lie buried deep in the heart of Texas and revolve around" President Johnson. The show featured the freewheeling imaginings of Barr McClellan, a retired Texas lawyer whose book demonizing Johnson is rooted in supposed confidences from sources who are now conveniently dead. The book is rich in patently unhistorical touches, insisting that Johnson was at a shadowy meeting on the eve of the assassination with Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and two Texas oilmen. This is the stuff not of history, but of the Texas conspiratorial satires of the late Richard Condon.

A demand to set the record straight was understandably pressed by the late president's outraged relatives and colleagues. This issue is about fairness and common sense, not the freedom to broadcast. After the initial controversy, the channel admitted it had failed to"make it apparent that the material presented in this program is a theory." The program was one of several taking up unproven but titillating conspiracy speculations, from the Mafia to Cuba; the channel insisted that some deserved"public debate" and that there had never been"one clear-cut finding." This stance seems to equate any and all bits of what-if fantasizing with the Warren Commission's lengthy inquiry and firm conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the murderer.

After public pressure, the channel is now pursuing an independent review by three respected historians. The History Channel's reputation, as much as Johnson's, is in urgent need of this corrective. The program has already generated a flood of truly misinformed complaints and accusations for the Johnson presidential library. In clinging to his harebrained narrative, Mr. McClellan admits that he dabbled in"faction": fictional projections. That's the last thing the History Channel needs to stand for.

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