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Sweeps month produced a frenzy of JFK programs


Here it is better than 28 years later, and news surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy continues to gush forth.

But from the flood of JFK reports that surfaced on television in February, a composite conspiracy murder suspect has finally emerged: He's a Mafia-connected CIA agent of Cuban ancestry who befriended and then framed Lee Harvey Oswald.

Shocked? Don't be. It's just a theory. And the only certainty we have come to learn about JFK conspiracy plots is that tomorrow there will be another.

The assassination mania that seems to have captivated and divided the American public anew is of course being pinned on the December release of Oliver Stone's controversial film "JFK," which espouses its own hypothesis with a decidedly heavy hand.

But "JFK" is merely the spark. TV has been the fire, and the fuel, because the JFK assassination remains one of the most dependable pieces of ratings fodder the tube has going. And February, in case no one noticed, was a "sweeps" month.

Indeed, the astonishing amount of air time granted the ongoing JFK murder mystery last month perfectly symbolized television's escalating penchant for feeding frenzy.

But the conspiracy furor enveloping the JFK assassination was not merely the February story du jour of tabloid TV. No, the networks were there, too, as was CNN. And the Arts & Entertainment network.

Every week brought some kind of "startling new evidence" based on the viewing of "secret documents" that linked "the mob" or "the CIA" or "anti-Castro forces" to a "plot to overthrow the administration."

Oswald? He was there, too, but evidently simply enjoying the view from his School Book Depository perch and soaking up some rays. The rifle? Oh, that. Just having a little fun pointing and aiming at lunchtime.

As far as TV was concerned last month, just about everyone except Oswald and perhaps Marilyn Monroe killed JFK.

Here's how the story played in February:

* "Today": The program that daily gave us Joe Garagiola also gave the JFK assassination the most attention by far, with a five-part series the week of Feb. 3-7 that analyzed a different conspiracy theory each morning.

Monday it was the government's take, Tuesday the Mafia theory, Wednesday the CIA angle, Thursday the Cuban argument and Friday the view from Oliver Stone (who thinks a whole bunch of people done the deed).

Alas, the only conclusion the "Today" series reached was that people like watching shows that discuss JFK's assassination.

* "Good Morning America": Ballistics expert Howard Donahue stopped by last Thursday to hype his book "Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed Kennedy." The book details Mr. Donahue's heretofore untapped theory that Kennedy was actually killed by a stray "friendly fire" bullet accidentally expelled from the gun of a Secret Service agent riding in the same motorcade on that fateful day.

Mr. Donahue conveniently neglects to speculate, however, on where the other bullets that were fired came from. Possibly from Geraldo.

* "48 Hours": Dan Rather, who was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, took off his gloves and dived headlong into a Feb. 5 examination of all the conspiracy theories sparked by the Stone film.

It touched on the usual theory laundry list -- CIA, Mafia, Cubans, lone gunman, grassy knoll -- and examined the famed Zapruder film of the assassination frame by frame. The conclusion: The film is too grainy. Who sold him that lousy camera, anyway?

* "Inside Edition": Host Bill O'Reilly hyped the Feb. 5 show big, claiming he had somehow viewed secret sealed files that emerged from the House Assassinations Committee investigations and that they revealed a complex CIA conspiracy and cover-up.

While Mr. O'Reilly was irked that the media were skeptical about the value of his apparent coup, the hubbub faded quickly after the segment aired.

* "A Current Affair": The syndicated series devoted two full broadcasts (Feb. 24 and 25) to an interview it had landed with a hobo named Harold Doyle (now 61) who was one of three men arrested near the murder scene.

Mr. Doyle told why he decided to come forward (could it have been money?) and revealed that he had nothing to do with the assassination, being a vagrant and all -- scotching once and for all the celebrated "single-panhandler theory."

* "Larry King Live": Mr. King landed an interview on Feb. 4 with Judith Exner, one of JFK's alleged longtime sex partners who has admitted to having Mafia connections. Ms. Exner was a little bit skeptical of the idea of a mob role in any apparent assassination conspiracy but did maintain that she loved Kennedy quite a bit and mourned his death for quite a while.

* "Nova": Yes, even PBS couldn't restrain itself from jumping into the JFK fray, re-running the 1988 documentary "Who Shot President Kennedy?" last Tuesday. The program examined the forensic evidence in the case, including the number of shots fired and whether the fatal shot came from the front or the rear. Also included was a look at a computer-enhanced photo which some people claim shows a second gunman hiding in bushes on the grassy knoll.

* Arts & Entertainment network: Following the weeklong rebroadcast of the several-year-old Showtime original, "The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald," cable's A&E; ran a documentary Friday night titled "Who Killed JFK? On the Trail of the Conspiracies" that was anchored by veteran newsman Bill Kurtis.

A series of interviews in the program revealed that virtually every one of the major conspiracy theories is credible and feasible, meaning that all of them could be accurate in part -- or none of them.

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