Looking Back at History's First Draft
My mom is a pack rat, which as everyone knows can be frustrating for friends and family trying to help bring order to accumulation. The upside of pack rattery is there are always gems scattered among the detritus of domesticity, and so it was last week, when I discovered at her house a box full of old newspapers originally saved for their historic headlines.
There, in yellow newsprint, was the moon landing, Nixon's and Agnew's resignations and the 1972 Arab-Israeli war. And Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination: Two papers from June 6, 1968—one, the morning New York Times, with a headline proclaiming his state as critical. (His death had been announced earlier that morning, apparently too late to go to press. Later editions show the famous "Kennedy is Dead, Victim of Assassin" headline.) The second, that day's Newark Evening News, proclaiming "Sen. Kennedy Dies."
It's easy to glance at these newspapers and, thinking about that miserable day, see it as a lesson on the limitations of print—the outdated headline, the fuzzy black-and-white photos, the lack of breaking updates in the midst of a still-unfolding story. A closer look, though, speaks to what we may be losing in the digital age. Taking the time to read through that early morning edition of the New York Times reveals a treasure trove of information. Multiple articles, with reporting from national and international bureaus, going into great detail about the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan—his background, family, activities, possible motivations, even when and where his weapons were purchased. The medical procedures used in an attempt to save RFK's life, meticulously detailed. First-hand accounts and a timeline of the shooting and its aftermath, along with analysis of what it meant to that year's elections, reactions from President Johnson and other public figures.
Kennedy was shot just after midnight June 5. The June 6 morning edition was the result of one-day's worth of reportage. As a first draft of history, the coverage is astounding.
I decided to cross-check the information available to readers of the New York Times and Newark Evening News that day with what we now know after 45 years—the polished, vetted, updated draft of history. And this is where it really gets interesting. I saw nothing in the Wikipedia article on RFK's assassination that contradicted or corrected anything reported that day. While including several alternate theories to explain the assassination (some of them conspiratorial) as well as, of course, information about the funeral, trial and other subsequent events, the informative core of the article seemed consistent with what the New York Times unearthed within 24 hours of the shooting.
In fact, there is at least one instance where my yellowed newsprint trumped the crowd-sourced wonder. Wikipedia quotes a statement from Kennedy spokesman Frank Mankiewicz announcing the senator's death and relating who was with him in the hospital when he died. As it turns out, Mankiewicz mistakenly forgot to list the senator's brother, Ted Kennedy, as among the family members present. I learned this not from the Wikipedia page—no schoolchild researching the assassination will find this information there. I read it in the June 6, 1968 edition of the Newark Evening News.