Remarks on the February 11, 2016 article by Peter Holley
This article by Peter Holley about Paul Schrade’s epochal appearance at the parole hearing for Sirhan Sirhan is well worth reading in its own right. But it is exceptional in another sense. It appeared in the Washington Post. As readers of this site, and of any literature on how the media deals with the assassinations of the sixties will know, the Post has a terrible record in dealing with the assassinations of the sixties. That record began in 1963 and went all the way up to, at least, the reception given Oliver Stone’s film JFK. If one recalls the latter, reporter George Lardner got hold of a renegade early draft of the script for Stone’s film and he used that to attack the picture—six months in advance of the movie’s premiere. In fairness, Stone then asked for space to reply. This was refused. So Stone then said he was going to buy a full page ad and use that to reply. The Post then relented. Stone and screenwriter Zach Sklar were allowed to publish a reply; but Lardner got the last word.
That attack by the Post launched something that was pretty much unprecedented in the history of both cinema and the press. Lardner’s article began a 180-day campaign to infest the public with a jaundiced view of a film that they would not see for at least a half-year. This writer has never seen anything like that campaign: either before or since. Then, the week Stone’s film premiered, the Post’s sister publication, Newsweek, smeared the picture on its cover. That cover story was headlined, “The Twisted Truth of JFK: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t be Trusted.” The periodical used perennial and reliable Jim Garrison critics like Hugh Aynesworth and Rosemary James to pummel the film. The magazine also hired four ancillary writers to contribute to that issue so they could get as much negative publicity out as soon as possible.
That particular Post attack was carried out under the auspices of Len Downie. In 1991, Downie took over the executive editorship of the Post as Ben Bradlee’s successor. As this author has written, Bradlee had a very curious relationship with his alleged friend John F. Kennedy. (See this two-part article) Because throughout his long reign as a chief editor at the Post, from about 1965-1991, Bradlee never allowed any critical discussion of the JFK case to enter his pages. For instance, when Anthony Summers called Bradlee to tip him off about the whole Antonio Veciana/David Phillips meeting at the Southland Center in Dallas, Bradlee put a British intern on the story by the name of David Leigh. What Leigh did not know is that Phillips had called Bradlee about the story also. When Leigh came back and said the story looked real to him, that did not matter. Because of his relationship with the CIA and Phillips, Bradlee would spike the story anyway. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, pp. 363-64)
Bradlee’s obstinate attitude on the JFK case extended to the Robert Kennedy assassination. In the mid-seventies, through the efforts of people like LA county supervisor Baxter Ward, and film-maker Ted Charach, there was an effort to reopen the RFK case. A high level Democratic Party political operative, attorney Lester Hyman, decided to call Bradlee. He told the editor about certain elements of the crime that had now come out into the open, e.g., the second gun controversy. That is, there was a second gun firing in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in addition to Sirhan’s. He also mentioned some work done on the RFK case by Ramparts contributing editor William W. Turner. Bradlee told Hyman he would put someone on the assignment.
Unfortunately, but predictably, Bradlee placed Ron Kessler on the story. At that time, Kessler had been with the Post for about five years. He ended up being one of the many reporters and journalists Bradlee hired that turned the Post into an almost civilian outpost of the intelligence community. Suffice it to say, Kessler would later write a terrible book about the Kennedys called The Sins of the Father; even later he became a mainstay at Chris Ruddy’s online Newsmax. Ruddy was the journalistic hit man on the Clintons for the late multi-millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
As Turner related in his book, Kessler asked him who he should talk to about the case first. Turner said he should talk to criminalist William Harper, and then Jonn Christian. Harper would explain to him how Sirhan Sirhan could not have killed Bobby Kennedy. Christian could then give him some leads about what actually did happen. (The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, by William Turner and Jonn Christian, pp. 311-13)
To put it simply, Kessler did not follow Turner’s leads. Once he arrived in Los Angeles, he immediately met up with local police and FBI agents who all backed the official story of Sirhan being the only person firing that night. . He also met with writer Robert Blair Kaiser who had written a book on the case that said that Sirhan was the sole assassin. It was only after these meetings that Kessler met with Harper. Harper told Turner that Kessler was so obtuse about the case that he gave up trying to educate him. He stood up and handed him his short essay on the ballistics of the murder—which Kessler refused to accept. Kessler never got in contact with Christian. But he told Turner that Bradlee had given him an open-ended schedule for the story and, although he was headed back to Washington, he would soon return.
Kessler did not come back. Three days after telling Turner about Bradlee’s open-ended schedule, his story on the RFK case appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. It was titled “Ballistics Expert Discounts RFK 2nd Gun Theory.” The first sentence of the 12/18/74 story was, “The nationally recognized ballistics expert whose claim gave rise to a theory that Robert F. Kennedy was not killed by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, this week admitted there is no evidence to support his contention.” As Turner notes, Kessler’s story was picked up by nearly every newspaper outlet in the nation. (ibid, p. 312)
This is not what Harper told Kessler. And it is not what was in Harper’s synopsis—which is why Kessler refused to accept it. When Hyman called Bradlee to ask for a right to reply, as with Stone, he got a refusal. As Turner writes, “Despite persistent requests, Bradlee refused to print a correction, retraction or Harper’s version.” (ibid) Kessler’s article was so bad, the Columbia Review of Journalism singled it out as an object lesson in unfair reporting. (ibid, p. 313)
With all that—and much more—in mind, the story that ran in the Post on February 11th of last week, which we linked to in our news section, is a bit stunning. Written by one Peter Holley, it is actually a fair and objective account of Sirhan’s latest parole hearing. That story focuses on the appearance of former labor leader Paul Schrade before the panel. Schrade, an RFK campaign worker, was at the Ambassador Hotel the night RFK was killed. He was actually walking through the hotel pantry behind the senator when both he and Kennedy were struck by bullets. The forensic problem which arises is that although they were walking in the same direction, Schrade was hit from the front and RFK from behind. As Schrade is quoted by Holley, “The truth is in the prosecutions’s own records and the autopsy. It says Sirhan couldn’t have shot Robert Kennedy and didn’t. He was out of position.”
The story then gets better. Holley now quotes Schrade’s words to author Shane O’Sullivan: “The LAPD and LA DA knew two hours after the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy that he was shot by a second gunman and they had conclusive evidence that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan could not and did not do it.” The story also delves into the problem of the number of shots that could be fired from Sirhan’s gun, versus the number of wounds in both Kennedy and the five other victims. It even includes the revolutionary audio analysis made in 2007 by technician Phil Von Praag of a tape recording of the shooting recovered from the California archives which reveals at least 13 shots being fired that night. Yet Sirhan’s revolver carried a maximum of eight cartridges.
Can anyone imagine this kind of stuff being written in the Post under Bradlee or Downie? What makes it even more startling is that Holley didn’t even go to the other side, e.g., Dan Moldea or Mel Ayton, to counter these arguments.
As everyone knows, Amazon.com owner and founder Jeff Bezos purchased the Post several years ago for a shockingly low figure of 250 million. He kept most of the editorial page in place. But he has hired new reporters, and also Ryan Kellett, who is the “audience and engagement editor”, a title that had to come from Bezos’ management style at Amazon.com. Holley came from Texas where he worked for Houstonian Magazine and the San Antonio Express-News. This is unlike Bradlee who hired either from New York or in the Beltway area.
Let us keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best with this rather refreshing new take on the RFK case by the Post. Meanwhile, we all owe thanks to Schrade for showing up at the hearing. And we should also congratulate Holley, which you can do by emailing him at his byline. Tell him to keep up the fine work. No more Kesslers.