By W. Tracy Parnell
On February 26 2003, the Discovery Channel featured a documentary entitled “Death at Dealey Plaza” as an episode in their regular “Unsolved History” series. The program examined several of the more prominent amateur photographers present in Dealey Plaza for the assassination of JFK on November 22 1963. The broadcast featured noted assassination researcher Gary Mack, who acted as a host of sorts for the proceedings by interviewing witnesses and generally moving things along. The main theme of the program was that ordinary American citizens who happened to be present while history was made documented the final 45 seconds or so of the life of the 35th President in a nearly continuous manner.
Unfortunately, some conspiracy-oriented researchers seem to have a problem with the broadcast, perhaps because of preconceived ideas of what the show should or should not be about. A few have even resorted to personal attacks and ridicule directed at Mack who is currently curator of The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. This article hopes to set the record strait on the issues of what the program was about, what it was not about, and what was included or excluded and why. Some of the most common complaints of the critics will be addressed in question and answer format using quotes from Mack. Most of the information provided here is publicly available at the Discovery Channel chat room in the form of questions answered by Mack in response to viewer inquiries.
Before looking at specific questions of the critics, it would be useful to state what the goal of the program really was. As Mack explains, “The show was produced for a general audience, not conspiracy researchers. It was simply about the photographers and what they captured on film. The discussion about who killed JFK is another subject for another day.”
All quotes below are from Gary Mack.
Q: Why was the “Badge Man” issue not covered in the program since it is a well-known fact that Gary Mack was involved in bringing this issue to light?
“It was deleted at my request, since there wasn't enough time to address the issue fully and properly along with all the other photos.”
Q: Why were certain other conspiracy theories not discussed?
“Because the show was
not about conspiracy theories, it was about the
Q: How was the location for the “Grassy Knoll Stand-in” chosen?
“The spot chosen for the stand-in was midway between the acoustics and Badge Man locations to demonstrate what her camera could and could not capture and why. Only those issues were addressed.”
Q: Why did the program imply that there was no assassin visible in the Moorman photo? Was Gary involved in the Moorman recreation?
“I was fully involved in the restaging and no claim was made that there was not an assassin in the Moorman photo. The photo expert concluded only that if someone was there, the camera could not photograph him clearly enough to identify. I agree, and that is the same conclusion that Geoff Crawley and several other photo scientists have told me over the years based on the physics involved.”
Q: During the computer animation motorcade sequence 3 gunshots are dubbed in and the screen turns red after each shot. This seems to support the lone gunman theory of 3 shots only.
“Three shots were fired that day. The question is whether four or more were fired, and that was not the focus of the show. The acoustics evidence is in dispute, you know.”
Q: What about reports of photos taken by Mary Moorman that were confiscated?
“When Mary Moorman went
home the night of the assassination, all four or
five photos were in her possession. She kept two and gave the others to the
two police officers in the motorcade that she was friends with. They lost
the pictures over the years.”
Q: What about reports of smoke in Dealey Plaza?
“The so-called smoke is
a very interesting subject and should be included
in a show about conspiracy theories.”
Q: Why was the medical emergency in Dealey Plaza just minutes before the assassination (possibly staged) not discussed?
“The medical emergency was a Dallas Morning News carrier and was not connected to the assassination in any way. Cut for time was a reference to the incident and a blowup of the Bronson film showing the flashing light of the ambulance.”
Q: It seems suspicious to some that no one working in the Post Office building has ever come forward with a film or photo. What about that?
“Orville Nix and Robert
Hughes both worked in that building and their
films appeared in the program.”
Q: What about the appearance of what some believe is a shooter in the Nix film?
“… the shooter image you mention was found in the original Nix film, which was lost. The versions in the show came from two first generation prints and are way too dark to show anything in that area. Until the original film is found, nothing further can be done.”
Q: During the recreation of the Nix film it appears that the car used as a stand-in for the Presidential limo was moving much faster than it should be. It was also the wrong type of car.
“The car wasn't being tested, the image the camera captured was tested. No effort was made to have the car move at the exact speed, for the car had no effect on what Nix photographed.”
Q: What about Gordon Arnold?
“His story appears in The Men Who Killed Kennedy in far more depth than could be included in the new show.”
Q: There are known to be photographers present in Dealey Plaza that day that have never come forward. Why was this subject not discussed?
“There was a very impressive closing sequence addressing that issue, which included showing two other unidentified photographers in the Dorman film. It was cut for time and the much shorter closing scene replaced it.”
Q: Why was the possible human movement seen in the Hughes Film not addressed?
“The window was blown up and mentioned, but my words describing the Frontline findings got cut for time. That's unfortunate.”
Q: What are the books seen on a bookshelf behind Gary Mack in the program?
“It was a bookcase at the production company in California; you'll see it in the background of other Unsolved History shows, too.”
Q: At one point in the program just before a recreation and discussion of the Moorman photo, a bright white flash is super-imposed over the sixth-floor window accompanied by a dubbed in gunshot sound. I believe this is inappropriate.
“I agree, and will notify the producers. The show will air periodically for several years, so there's still time to make minor adjustments.”
Q: At the beginning of the show the narrator states:
“Unsolved History turns Dealey Plaza into a high-tech laboratory and searches for new clues, hidden, in these frames of shocking evidence”. The program did not meet this stated goal.
“That's a fair criticism as to whether the opening line matched the contents.”
Q: The program did not include all relevant photos and films. What about the Altgens #6 photo?
“With only 44 minutes to work with, producers still had to cut pictures and photos out of the show.”
Q: The appearance of the “Black Dog Man” in Willis #5 was not discussed.
“And that's a shame, for it's an intriguing image, though no one has proven there's anything sinister about him other than being unidentified.”
Q: What about the Weaver photo?
“… it appeared near the end, another victim of editing to fit the time slot.”
Q: What about the recently released Skaggs photo(s)?
“Cut for time, but will appear in the home video, which will be about 7-8 minutes longer, they tell me. Some of his pictures DID appear, however; for example, the TSBD photo that looks very much like Powell's picture was his.”
Q: What about Croft photo(s)?
“Cut for time and because only black & white prints were available, but he's listed in the credits.”
Q: What about the Betzner photo(s)?
“Cut for time, but he's in the credits anyway.”
Q: What about the Dillard photo(s)?
“Dillard's photos did not show Kennedy, therefore they were ignored. The show was about the photographers who filmed JFK and those images only.”
Q: What about the Powell photo?
“Powell does not show JFK either.”
Q: What about the Bond photo(s)?
“(the) Bond photos were not available. You have to get permission, you know, and the family has always declined.”
Q: What about the Paschall film?
“The film was not available and was not relevant to the show's purpose, which was the time JFK turned into Dealey Plaza to the last shot. Paschall's film shows JFK before the Plaza and after the shooting.”
Q: What about the Martin film?
“The original film is not available, at least at this point in time, and the existing copies are extremely dark and only show JFK on Houston. But so did the Hughes, Muchmore, Dorman and Willis images.”
Q: What about the Bell film?
“Same reason as Paschall. Jackie's hat at the bottom of the frame on Houston is about all you can see and the post-shooting scene of JFK was not of interest. Therefore, it was cut.”
Despite the criticisms of some, the program was a well-produced and entertaining look at the Dealey photographers. It also included at least one first - the initial showing of Mack’s copy of the FBI’s Moorman # 5 print. He states, “While it was not obvious on television, the FBI print shows the blood spray in the air, thus confirming the Z315/316 timing I figured out some 20 years ago.”
A final quote from Mack sums up his own feelings about the program:
“In 2003, there is a concern in television that the subject may not relate well to younger audiences. The overnight ratings showed otherwise, and quite conclusively. Not only was it the highest-rated show in the Unsolved History series, it was the number one show in its time period, beating all other commercial cable channels. Not only was it first in total audience, it was first in the most important 25-49 demographic. And since the preliminary ratings were taken in the top ten markets, it is expected the show will be even stronger when the national ratings are compiled.
In short, the program was a home run for all concerned, and I’m pleased and proud to have been a part of the team that did it and that The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza was recognized for the preservation/restoration work we do.”