Is Reddit inherently stupid about history?

President John F. Kennedy at sea, August 1962

In my experience, JFK conspiracy theories are what people talk about when they don’t want to talk about the facts of the murder of a sitting president.

Case in point columnist Alex Beam’s Saturday piece for the Boston Globe, “Research the JFK assassination, Reddit Style

Beam opens the piece by quoting something I said at a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Warren Commission report: that “the Internet will usher in a new era of Kennedy assassination research.”

“Research”? Beam writes “Really?”

He proceeds to catalogue (or make up, it’s not clear which) a series of stupid JFK conspiracy tropes that have appeared (or might appear) on Reddit. Or in his imagination. Let’s concede the lame point. There are indeed some stupid conspiracy theories out there. Atta boy, Alex, the world is safer now that you put those trolls in their place.

Beam has spared himself the drudgery of doing any actual research into the new JFK information that has emerged in recent years, thanks to the 1992 JFK Records Act. He can enjoy the more pleasurable, but less challenging task, of shooting fish in a barrel. He passes over the substance of my speech (and a companion piece in Medium, JFK 3.0), in which I argued that, for the first time in 50 years, much of the historical record of JFK’s murder- the investigative files, interviews, photography, and forensic evidence—are available to anyone anywhere.

Thanks to the Internet, the JFK story is no longer filtered by the gatekeepers of Washington or Hollywood or academia, This fact, I argue, will eventually transform public understanding of one of the great crimes in American history.

Beam seeks to mock my claim by equating Reddit with the Internet, an illogical but perhaps understandable mistake. Reddit is indeed a huge popular site and a font of gibberish about the JFK story. But Reddit isn’t the Internet, nor is it the place where the best research and discussion of the historical record of JFK’s assassination can be found online.

In my piece I cited the exemplary model of MaryFerrell.org, a nonprofit which has done more than the National Archives itself to make the JFK assassination story available and comprehensible to students, scholars, journalists, authors, and interested citizens. It offers no stupid conspiracy theories.

There are a dozen good Facebook pages about the JFK story, some focusing on research and books, others on audio and photographic records, the eyewitnesses, and the veil of secrecy that still surrounds the subject.

The Spartacus Educational Forum on JFK’s assassination and David Von Pein’s YouTube Channel, like the Web sites of JFK Lancer, the JFK Library, the Dallas Morning News, Citizens for Truth About the Kennedy Assassination, Professor John McAdams, and British researchers, all address the enduring questions about the astonishing events of November 1963 in which a sitting president was shot dead in public and no one was ever brought to justice for the crime. From these sites, Beam averts his eyes.

Indeed, in my talk I predicted that this latter oft-neglect fact is the one that is going to attract more public attention in coming years. We have learned much in recent years, and we will learn more in 2017 about why not one of the senior CIA and the FBI officials who knew about the politics, travels, and contacts of accused assassin Lee Oswald before JFK was killed lost their jobs after November 22, 1963.

As I have argued on JFK Facts, two top CIA officials opposed to JFK’s dovish foreign policy—counterintelligence chief James Angleton and deputy director Richard Helms—should have lost their jobs after Kennedy was killed on their watch.

A factual reading of the CIA’s own declassified documents allows no other conclusion in my view. On October 10, 1963, four undercover officers reporting to Angleton and Helms took a good long look at accused assassin Lee Oswald and wrote a detailed cable about him. They closed by assuring themselves and their colleagues that Oswald was “maturing.” If Oswald killed JFK six weeks later, the composition of that cable was a firing offense for all involved.

Unfortunately, the CIA’s cable about the “maturing” Oswald as not made public until thirty years after the crime, long after the six official investigations had concluded, and Angleton and Helms had retired. The CIA mandarins didn’t lose their jobs (or their clandestine power) because official secrecy spared them from democratic accountability.

Beam is not interested in that story. It’s easier and more fun to mock conspiracy theorists than to grapple with the legacy of governmental misconduct. Why mention the CIA’s suppression of 1,100 assassination-related records when you can poke fun at someone who saw UFOs in Dealey Plaza? Beam, like the Reddit trolls, isn’t interested in hard questions.

But the mote in Beam’s eye should not distract us from the beam of truth in his piece: Reddit is very popular and it does little to promote historical understanding of the JFK story. The question is, Is Reddit inherently stupid on the JFK story? Or can it serve as a platform for intelligent discussion?

The answer is yes it can—if the redditors want it to. Perhaps the biggest problem is the assumption that any discussion of the JFK assassination story is a “conspiracy” discussion. The subredditors at ‘r/history” ask anyone who wants to talk about “conspiracy” to go elsewhere. Thus the JFK story is removed from history and consigned to speculation.

But this is itself a deeply a politicized conception of the subject. As we now know, Richard Helms secretly sought to marginalize critics of the Warren Commission in as early as 1967 by suggesting that their questions were the ravings of impudent “conspiracy theorists.” The critics, he huffed, had the temerity to doubt the august authority of the Warren Commission members.

In fact, Helms and Angleton had another agenda: to make sure the Warren Commission critics did not learn the facts about the CIA’s pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald, the plots to assassinate foreign leaders, and the illegal surveillance programs (HTLINGUAL and MKCHAOS) that they used to spy on the anti-war movement and other dissidents.

Reddit makes itself stupid on the JFK story by inadvertently adopting the CIA’s cleverly self-interested claim the official story is inherently factual and criticism of it is inherently theoretical. And, to be sure, many conspiracy theorists share this belief.

The distinction, of course, is bogus, and redditors should not use it organize discussion of an important historical topic of enduring interest. Reddit should make a place for sane discussion of the emerging (but not quite complete) record of JFK’s assassination.

And Old Media chauvinism notwithstanding, the question for Reddit applies equally to the Boston Globe. Is the Globe inherently stupid on the JFK assassination story? To support the claim, one could cite Beam’s story, which discusses the conspiracy scenarios at length without reference to a single fact.

But the Globe editors have seen fit to report more factual stories— about critics of the Warren Commission and the thousand of still-secret JFK records. In these stories the editors have transcended the dubious assumption that news reporting on the JFK story is inherently about “conspiracy” and chosen to enlighten the audience about new developments on a news topic of general interest.

Beam’s column recalls what social media maven Anthony De Rosa wrote here about Reddit’s capacity for disseminating bad information.

“Yes, we all realize there’s the capacity to spread rumors, falsehoods, even smear and libel, which should not be taken lightly,” De Rosa wrote.
We’ll need to work to find ways to avoid and deal seriously with this element. However we should not dismiss the usefulness of these platforms to be a window into what’s happening anywhere in the world at any time.”

Whatever its stupid conspiracy mongering, Reddit can become a useful as a window into the sober discussion of a formative chapter in American history, but only if we—redditors and readers—really want to see what’s there.

Jefferson Morley is editor of JFK Facts (jfkfacts.org) and author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA.