Wednesday, 26 November 2003 12:18

"Peter, Meet my friend and assistant Gus Russo"

Written by

Jim DiEugenio on the origins of the Gus Russo/Peter Jennings collaboration.

Peter Jennings

Why did ABC, Peter Jennings, and executive producer Tom Yellin use Gus Russo as their chief consultant on this program and how did Russo originally come to their attention? Why did they then allow Russo to bring in his pal Dale Myers and his already discredited computer simulation?

The answer to that question appears to be: Seymour Hersh.

As many recall, about seven years ago ABC bought the TV broadcast rights to Hersh's book on John Kennedy entitled, The Dark Side of Camelot. From most reports, the main reason they purchased the book was because of a supposed sensational document which showed a secret deal involving Marilyn Monroe, mobster Sam Giancana, and members of the Kennedy clan including JFK.

Upon release, the book was nearly universally panned, most notably by Gary Wills in The New York Review of Books. Only two reviews were in any way positive. After panning the book in an initial review, The New York Times brought in longtime CIA flack Thomas Powers to do a more sympathetic review which concluded that Kennedy deserved to get his head blown off in Dealey Plaza. The New Yorker, which also has a history of obfuscating the facts about the assassination, brought in Gore Vidal. Vidal has been a Kennedy basher since Bobby Kennedy banned him from the White House for reportedly drunken behavior and lewd language. That was about it for the reviewing accolades.

There was a good reason for the mostly negative reception. Hersh used an array of questionable tactics in his research and reporting to perform what any objective reviewer would have to call a hatchet job. These were exposed prior to the book's publication by Robert Sam Anson in the November 1997 issue of Vanity Fair. Others were discovered by various reviewers like Dr. David Wrone. To use some new examples (Hersh's shoddy work provides endless opportunities for this sort of thing) in his book (pgs 426-428) Hersh writes that Kennedy asked Air Force General Ed Lansdale to go to Saigon to arrange the assassination of Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. There is no evidence of this in the Church Committee Report on this subject or in any serious examination of the last few months of Diem's regime by any noted scholar of the subject. Hersh got this info secondhand with almost no corroboration so he knew he was fishing. He called up David Kaiser who was working on a monumental history of American involvement in Vietnam from 1960-65 eventually called American Tragedy. In the footnotes of this fine book, Kaiser notes Hersh's call to him about this piece of gossip. Kaiser wrote that he informed Hersh that he had seen nothing to support it in his research. In fact the White House calendar demonstrated that Lansdale never met with Kennedy in 1963. (Kaiser p. 531)

Hersh trotted out Judith Exner for another appearance before she died. Hersh never informs the reader of any of the problems that Exner presented as a witness. As was his style in the book, he simply listed in his notes that he interviewed her and refers the reader to other articles on her. Exner's credibility problems are there for anyone to see and they were listed in Probe Magazine (Vol. 4 No. 6), and in the books Questions of Controversy by Mel Ayton, and The Assassinations edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease. Hersh ignored all of her contradictions and deceptions. He actually added more to the long and winding list. He used a man named Martin Underwood to backstop a story about her delivering payoffs between Giancana and Kennedy. In the ABC special based on the book, Jennings told the audience Underwood would not appear on the show. He did not tell why. The Assassinations Records Review Board did tell us why in their Final Report. Chief Counsel Jeremy Gunn heard of this story and called Underwood in to testify. He said he knew nothing about these Exner trips as to Chicago and Giancana. Another part of Exner's story had serous problems. She told Hersh that Bobby Kennedy was "very much a part of all of this." She is referring to the money transfers from JFK to Giancana. She adds, "Bobby would come in and bring the information in a manila envelope to Jack. And they would discuss a little bit about it. And Bobby often would put his hand on my shoulder and ask, `Are you still comfortable doing this? We want you to let us know if you don't want to.' Hersh then further quotes Exner as saying the Kennedys "were very smart in the way they handled this .... I was this little bauble." She goes on to add that they seemed at ease as they discussed the contents of the papers and the envelope in front of her. (Pgs. 307-308)

Hersh should have been more careful with Exner. Or her handlers should have coached her more. Evidently she could not recall all the different stories she told over the last 25 years of her life on this subject. She couldn't keep them all straight. It is hard to believe that Hersh was not aware of Exner's appearance on Larry King on February 4, 1992. When King asked her about any relationship she had with RFK, she replied very succinctly with the word, "None." King was surprised at this response, so he asked her to clarify it. She stated that she probably met him once or twice at a political fundraiser or a party in Los Angeles. That was it. Hersh's book came out five years later and he says he researched it with various assistants for five years. Yet he was not was not aware of this blatant contradiction noted by Mr. Ayton (p. 158). Or if he was he chose not to reveal it.

But the biggest pratfall made by Hersh was with the above mentioned Monroe/Kennedy documents which he obtained from a man named Lex Cusack whose father supposedly had the documents. When ABC bought the rights for the book they did something that Hersh, incredibly, did not do. They brought them to forensic experts who tested both the typing and the writing. They found they could not have been made when Cusack said they were or with the instruments available at that time. So why did Hersh not hire his own experts? He has replied at various times that a) It was expensive to hire these experts, and b) the tests take a long time to perform (See Eric Alterman in Salon in October of 1997). Concerning the first, Hersh got a huge advance for the book, well into the six figures by a major publisher, Little Brown and Company. He hired several assistants to help him. He could not afford the rather small amount of money the testing would have entailed? Little, Brown could not afford it either? As for the time factor, it is even weaker. As noted, Hersh said he took five years to complete the book. CBS tested the documents after ABC did and it took them a matter of just a few weeks. Researcher John Armstrong got in contact with one of the ABC experts and asked him to do a test for him on another matter. He said he could do it in about a month.

But there is more to it. In a story in The New York Times (9/27/97), reporter Bill Carter revealed that Hersh had previously tried to peddle the documentary rights to his book to NBC. And this sale was based on the sensational, ersatz Monroe documents. NBC sent some experts to look at the documents also and Warren Littlefield, an NBC executive, told Hersh that in their opinion, the documents were questionable. This was in the summer of 1996. Littlefield added that NBC's lawyers were more specific about the questions in talks with Hersh's attorneys. So Hersh could hire attorneys for the sale of the documents, yet he could not hire experts to test the documents.

When ABC did a 20/20 segment (9/25/97) exposing the documents Hersh appeared on camera for very, very little time. The segment focused on the forensic debunking of the documents and Cusack's role in it. The previous testing of the documents by NBC was not mentioned at all. David Westin had approved a million dollar budget for Hersh's longtime friend Mark Obenhaus to produce a special based on the book. It was left to Anson and Charles Samuels in an article in The New Yorker (11/3/97) to detail that Hersh had planned to cut in Cusack after the sale of the book for the use of the documents, upon which the sale apparently relied. So the possibility was that Hersh did not want the documents exposed and did not tell ABC about the previous testing. And since Obenhaus and Hersh have been friends awhile, it may be that Obenhaus and Jennings were protecting Hersh on this score to, in turn, protect Westin's unwise investment.

The seeds of the Russo-Jennings meeting come from this rather inauspicious origin. For when Debra Conway called ABC they said that two of the producers on the assassination special are Obenhaus and Edward Gray who were the producers of the Hersh special. Russo helped Hersh on his book as he is mentioned on page 476 of the Acknowledgements. According to Anson, Obenahus had wanted to make a special on the JFK assassination in 1993 but it fell through. So now ABC did do the actual assassination special and they went back to some of their original team that produced this less than stellar-to say the least -previous one.

Some people do not learn from past errors. The whole thing reminds me of the press angle as represented by the Danny DeVito character in the film LA Confidential. This time, the corpse in the hotel room is Kennedy's.

Last modified on Sunday, 09 October 2016 16:55
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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