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JFK investigation at Cleburne newspaper became lobbying lesson "Free Press" not free

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Nov 22, 2013 No Comments ›› Dan Bodine
President John F. Kennedy and the first lady, Jackie, being greeted as they arrived at Dallas Love Field 50 years ago today. (credit: AP photo file)

President John F. Kennedy and the first lady, Jackie, being greeted as they arrived at Dallas Love Field 50 years ago today. (credit: AP photo file)

 

By A. Daniel Bodine

 

CLEBURNE, TX–Probably one of the hardest lessons this old thick-headed, idealistic country boy from North Central Texas ever had to learn during the rush-to-riches melee of the Sunbelt Era was that the Free Press that’s so deeply embedded in our national psyche is a laughable joke. In a way.

Costly Sunbelt expansionism, fueled by corporate re-locations from northern states, and a frenzied rush to capitalize on new streams of advertising revenue, turned newspapers into the latest Bible Belt whores, you could even say. In a way.

I learned a hard lesson on how this new lobbying works on an earlier JFK anniversary edition once. While at the old, 10,000-circulation Cleburne Times-Review in the D-FW metroplex.

I had a scoop on a possible real killer, and was running with it. Until…Confronted with cutting out a key part of the story or losing my job over the threat of lost advertising revenue, I lowered my head and limped back to my desk. And scratched it out. I’m no match for operational revenue.

Historically, newspapers feed the tree of Liberty, and they certainly aren’t free either, ma’am. Nope. Events this week, leading up the 50th anniversary, brought back memories. With Corporate America even more in control of our media, our Democracy’s credibility (that fragile system of checks and balances that is our government) is strained, to say the least.

You’ve read many of the conspiracy theories, no doubt. Do I, personally, believe there were others involved? Most definitely. More than likely it was carried out by rogue C.I.A. agents, just one of many theories.

President Kennedy had just fired one, a story goes, one strongly connected to both Wall Street and the surging military-industrial complex. The president also had given orders to start pulling troops out of Vietnam, too. Bad news for spook financiers. Couple that with soreheads. Always a volatile mix.

Anyway, the assassination changed our direction. Without an election. Vietnam mushroomed. The military-industrial complex mushroomed. The Sunbelt mushroomed. And so have the wars. Or conflicts. Here’s a link to one such story (about the New York Times and C.I.A.); one about the actual coup, among others, can be found here.)

The story I was working on came at the 1978 JFK anniversary. Cleburne is located 30 miles south of Fort Worth and 45 miles southeast of Dallas.  All the D-FW metroplex were transformed profoundly by the Sunbelt. Keeping growth going became paramount.

In media, old family newspapers were picked up by corporate chains rushing in to take advantage of promising growth. Chains who then had to squeeze to come up with the revenue to pay off added acquisition notes when the revenue wasn’t so promsing. And hard news got caught in a backwash of advertiser interests.

Las Vegas-based Donrey Media Group had purchased the historic Cleburne paper a few years earlier at this time, and of course making money was the name of its game. The only game, it seemed at times. To us in the newsroom.

I’d worked probably a week on this JFK story. It involved a shadowy European figure with a French Algiers connection, named Jean Souetre, who supposedly had been placed by several sources in Dallas at the time of the assassination.

A prominent Cleburne businessman, a day after JFK was killed, had gone to the FBI and reported two nights before he’d been at a Dallas nightclub, and men at the next table (one of whom was identified as Souetre) were discussing an assassination.

I learned of it thru a leading JFK conspiracy theorist, J. Gary Shaw, an architect in Cleburne. Shaw showed documents he’d obtained thru the Freedom of Information Act detailing the report.

The night before we were to publish my story, I made “the mistake” of contacting the businessman at his home for a comment. It surprised him, yes. Got angry at me, he did.

After a while he told me flatly not to mention his name in anyway. Don’t you do it, was the warning.

Well, that surprises me, I told him. You did what a good citizen should do and reported something out of the ordinary and possibly important. You should be proud of yourself!

When you’re young and naïve, you think like this. Because he did his patriotic duty, people would honor him, I’d thought. This is America, after all!

I have a job to do, I told him. The public has a right to know what you heard. I’m a reporter; I will put the story in the paper tomorrow on the anniversary of the shooting, and simply say you did not wish to comment on it.

Our conversation ended that way. Differing on how people would feel.

newspaper presses

Purchasing and operating newspaper presses are expensive. In the wake of costly Sunbelt expansionism more and papers are opting for joint printing operations, which draw sneers of further dilution of hard news and loss of locale.

People’s misconception of a free press (extrapolated to free governmental services today, if you wish), begins and ends with who’s going to pay for it.

A reader pays a quarter, fifty cents, dollar or two, maybe, to purchase a single newspaper copy. And feels it gives him or her vested interest in content. Any need for a level of advertiser support is a non sequitur.

But that newspaper sale hardly dents the mailing or distribution cost. Who pays, too, for gathering and assembling the news? And advertisement information? And the leg/hand work in backshop composition? Or the high cost of printing? Huh?

Still, the free press concept, the right to know and tell, remains hallowed. Threaten it, you risk reader wrath.

There are similarities here, yes, with citizens requesting more of government — more or upgraded services, e.g. — while angrily balking both at paying higher taxes to fund them or participating more in processes to come up with better solutions. Exceptionalism, this balking is. But it doesn’t build roads. Who’s to pay for all this? remains.

Meanwhile, another thorn grows in the void. Corporations, as new Sunbelt era citizens, find reins of power relative to their willingness to fund certain aspects of government expenses thru tax-deductible donations. Where will this lead?

All in all, the past 50 years of changes have lifted the veil on American dreamers — those who still thumb-suck the concept of a national freedom! Two bits of idealism have been checkmated by six bits of financial realism, and…Our vision has been altered. And we’re sore over the loss.

Early the next morning after this phone interview, this new education began for me. A balding but youngish, mid-size figure with a serious bent on his face appeared in the newsroom doorway, and looked straight back in the corner at me.

Don Schneider, general manager, then extended his left arm and beckoned me with his hand. Come to my office, it said. I followed and there on the plush sofa beside his desk was the businessman I interviewed last night. He wasn’t smiling.

I’d been called upon the Golden Carpet to see The Light of Day–of how things really work. To be given a sniff of the dark grease that kept the shiny wheels of virulent Sunbelt capitalism “a rolling along, sweet doggie, rolling right along.

After awkwardly explaining my telephone call last night about the JFK story had raised some undue concern with “this gentleman,” Don then laid it on the table.

The man was threatening to yank his advertising — $75,000 annually? $15,000? I can’t remember the figure. A bunch!

“Unless you can show conclusively that that guy (the one in my article) was the one who killed President Kennedy, then you’re not going to use this man’s name with him in the story,” Don more or less informed me. “Do you understand?”

Gulp.

Yup…Pieces all fell into place then. I understood. Finally.

Heated capitalism, first, had railroaded civic responsibility. Along with other values, too, for sure. But it wasn’t this guy’s fault.

I suppose the debate should be whether this still brand new baby of America the beautiful has been retrofitted, or retrograded, back to the values of its European parents, as the country has matured some with its age.

In this example, inadvertently, I was risking putting the man and his business on the endangered list. All because of a web of regional mores on liquor sure to snare him. And we in the new young generation thought we’d made a cosmos jump?

Johnson County was a dry county. Changing some with the times, yes, but still grounded in old ways of morality. Indeed, the old saying before the Sunbelt clearly took over was,  there are more churches in Cleburne then there were fillin’ stations.

This man’s concern was that he’d gotten caught admitting to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he’d actually been sinning “over the county line” at a Dallas nightclub, where they sold WHISKEY!!

Lord help him! He’d been sippin’ of the devil’s brew just sure as hell! the story’s headlines might just as well have screamed. Caught in the act!

And I’d actually naively thought when telephoning him that’d the press had the power to get him hailed more or less as a hero. Not destroyed.

The killing of our nation’s president in Dallas was minor, indeed, compared to what he might’ve lost in sales to righteous hypocrites who refused to shop in a store whose owner was a drinker!

Is this not — shall we dare ask, too — a tell-tale sign the nation had faltered in this new radical Sunbelt capitalism and fell back into provincialism instead, that anachronistic stage of political existence we baby-boomers so fervently believed we’d cleanly arisen out of? Huh?

Or was that our dreamy mistake, too? We thought we were chosen and needn’t dirty our hands with that education stage? And left it unattended?

Reality sucks! The advertiser had a rope tied to our general manager’s collar–a man directly responsible for keeping our newspaper’s financial ship afloat – and was holding on tight for a ransom payment. My story. Omit his involvement.

Should we just envy the power of a lobbyist instead? Life or death! Just one yank!

Or really, was my story worth anything? Other than a few extra newsstands sales? Don was being nice just going the extra step to explain it all to me.

I folded like a wet, limp accordion.

“I’ll leave him out of the story then.”

A great local angle on a national story, it could have been. But up against lost advertising dollars it was reduced to something lower than page filler.

I got up and walked out of the office. Nodding my head at the floor.

A newly educated man.

 

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