While today marks the 50 year anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it also marks the 50 year anniversary of a watershed moment for citizen journalism in America.
In an act considered an early form of citizen journalism, Abraham Zapruder, a 58 year old woman’s clothing maker equipped with a home-movie camera, captured the clearest and most widely-disseminated footage of the JFK assassination.
The video, immortalized as the Zapruder film, depicts the final seconds of President Kennedy’s life as bullets forever changed the course of history.
In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, the film was taken for development to the studios of WFAA, a local Dallas television station. WFAA lacked the resources to develop the film, and so it was passed to the Eastman Kodak processing plant. Following development there, copies were sent to Zapruder and the Secret Service. Despite WFAA’s inability to develop the film, the station was able to conduct a televised interview with Zapruder in which he reported on the background and contents of the film:
I got out in, uh, about a half-hour earlier to get a good spot to shoot some pictures. And I found a spot, one of these concrete blocks they have down near that park, near the underpass. And I got on top there, there was another girl from my office, she was right behind me. And as I was shooting, as the President was coming down from Houston Street making his turn, it was about a half-way down there, I heard a shot, and he slumped to the side, like this. Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up [places fingers of right hand to right side of head in a narrow cone, over his right ear], all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t…
Fearing the film would be used to excite morbid curiosities, Zapruder sold the rights of the film to Life magazine for $150,000 with the stipulation that the frame of final hit would not be published. Zapruder gave $25,000 of his earnings to the widow of slain Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, whom Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly killed on the same day as the assassination.
Though Life published some photos from the film, the film itself was not widely seen until Good Morning America aired it in 1975; five years after Zapruder died from stomach cancer. This airing contributed to public doubts about the validity of the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination; doubts, which remain today.
Because the film captured a monumental episode in American history in such a raw form, and because it came about from an average citizen without journalistic training, Zapruder’s film has been described as one of the earliest instances of citizen journalism. In a recent New York Times article, film critic A.O. Scott wrote:
In retrospect, Zapruder can be seen — and is frequently cited — as a pioneer of citizen journalism, a resourceful amateur who caught something crucial that the professional news media somehow missed. Now, everyone with a smartphone is a potential Zapruder.
Today, it is rare to find an important event of which smartphones and blogs do not provide a raw account. Very little is missed in today’s society, and that seems to be what the founders envisioned. 50 years ago today, through his account of one of America’s darkest moments, Zapruder was among the first to realize the true intent of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.