On Kennedy Jr, golf, and media overkill

(From a mailing list post on July 19, 1999; reposted to the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog on July 16, 2007.  I was in the midst of flipping through old mailing list archives and picking up snapshots of how I thought and wrote long-time ago, and for instant response to an overhyped media event as tragic death of a public figure, I think it holds up pretty well. I also think this is about the point I gave up on television news having any relevance in my life ever again.

Warning: I was also in the midst of finishing my dissertation in fits and starts at this time, and I was frustrated already; hence, my language was a bit saltier then. This is actually pretty mild for me at that time, honestly…)

I got royally pissed off Saturday morning when the news came down that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Junior, had disappeared in an apparent plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard.

Of course, the crash is a tragedy, and one offers condolences to the involved families and all that. But what pissed me off was how the major television networks responded to the tragedy.

They started news coverage. And they didn’t stop until 6 PM that night.

Meanwhile, I’m wanting to watch a golf tournament.

Was that selfish of me? That I should place my own entertainment desires over the responsibility of the networks to interrupt their normal broadcast schedule with breaking news?

Maybe I would have been more understanding if news had actually been breaking. As far as I could tell, though, there were exactly two news points during the day:

  1. The plane is reported missing early Saturday morning;
  2. Debris from the plane is found on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard around 2:00 PM Saturday afternoon.

To report these two pieces of news, NBC, ABC, and CBS each gave us TEN HOURS of coverage during the day on Saturday.

The nature of this coverage was comical at times. At the height of my personal frustration, around 10:30 AM on Saturday morning, as the leaders of the Open were preparing to tee off, ABC was showing a Barbara Walters interview with Kennedy from a year previous. They were showing this interview for the THIRD TIME in an HOUR.

It was tantamount to admitting “Look, we don’t have anything new to say on this issue, but this is important to us and to hell with your golf tournament.”

I’m listening to NPR right now, 6:20 AM on Monday morning after, and Bob Edwards and Cokie Roberts are talking about the Kennedys being “America’s Family”. Which raises the question: why? What ever did the Kennedys do to become America’s family?

Well, one of them was President. And another was Attorney General. Big freaking whoop. George Bush was President and he’s got two kids who are governors of their respective states, one of which is the favorite to win the Presidency in 2000. The Bush clan isn’t America’s family. It’s not political power that makes America’s family.

It was something more. Kennedy Senior, the young leader of Camelot, was embraced by the baby-boom generation because of his youthfulness and vigor. His death – tragedy on the historic scale – was Camelot laid in bloody ruin. [1] From that point forward, there was some sort of emotional connection between that generation and the Kennedy clan. And I don’t know if any of us – the Kennedy family, the baby boomers, all of America for that matter – ever recovered.

And so the kids of the baby boomers – me, for instance – were born into a world where what happened to the Kennedys was considered important. We were taught in school about the wonder of the land in which we lived, the freest of all lands, without the trappings of the monarchy we fought so hard to free ourselves from way back when. And yet there was this family recieving all the benefits accorded to royalty.

The Kennedys, obviously, have always been a mystery to me. Even though my politics lie to the left of my parents’, I still don’t understand why Ted Kennedy is such a respected senator, even without mentioning that little occurrence called Chappaquiddick. To say nothing of my lack of understanding on why any of the other Kennedys are in public office. And John Kennedy Jr (despite being, by all accounts, a far more decent and respectable human being than the rest of his kin) has never been anything than a second-rate lawyer and a second-rate magazine publisher.

Whereas, to my parents’ generation, all these people are links to a man of so much promise as a leader whose time was tragically cut short.

In the end, then, I suppose I understand the fascination. The passing of John Kennedy Jr might not be a historical occurence, but indeed it is a cultural one.

It still remains bitterly disappointing that there has been an almost total lack of criticism and analysis of the knee-jerk love fest that the media on the whole engaged in on Saturday. To date, I’ve seen one article addressing the issue – from the Daily Telegraph, in London. England, not Ohio.

And even then, that piece was written with some disdain for the younger generation. Mark Steyn wrote about the “perfunctory” delivery of the US network affiliates’ local coverage of the Kennedy crash: “rich man from New York social scene dies; up next, sports. There was none of the tasteful accessorising of the national coverage – the sombre music, shots of the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery…Why the difference?” Well, because the local journos are young and have no connection to the Kennedy mystique, as opposed to the old farts running network news.

To Steyn’s credit, though, he recognizes this, and also the far more disturbing reason for the network media’s obsession with this story, as far as it implicates the journalists’ impartiality (which has always been little more than a rumor anyway): “Dan Rather went to the same restaurants as JFK Jnr, the same parties, the same summer resorts.”

Still, what does it say about me – or the world around me – that the quote from the press that I identified with most came from the sports talk radio station? Where Ryan Miller, whose lone claim to fame was as a starting role player on one of those Ohio State gridiron teams to nearly (but never quite) win a championship, saw the same Barbara Walters interview with the apparently deceased for the tenth time that morning instead of Craig Parry’s stunning charge up the Open leaderboard and burst out, “Who cares about JFK Junior?” I found myself saying “Amen” to the radio, in front of my daughters no less, in spite of myself.

[1] After the fact, I think I recognize that I ripped off the “Camelot in bloody ruin” analogy from Lewis Grizzard. I was not as careful about citation in 1999 as I am now. Which is weird, since after all, I was writing a dissertation at the time…

Mike Warnke, revisited

Originally from the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, July 6, 2007; crossposted to Growing Up Goddy on August 17, 2007.  Linkrot fixed left and right.

Here’s my moment of oh-dear-God-I’m-getting-OLD of the day:

Fifteen years ago, Cornerstone Magazine published an expose’ on “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke.

That very possibly is not a big deal to you. It’s huge to me. As Davan MacIntire puts it (in a comic that I identify way too much with), “I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to entertainment during my ‘I Love Jesus So Much I Annoy My Christian Parents’ stage. It was basically Warnke or Carman, and Warnke was the one who didn’t sell $150 tour jackets.”

(Apparently, Carman still does good business.)

There’s a great deal I could write here for the uninitiated, but I think the best person to tell you about who Warnke was is a just-shy-of-21-year-old USENET poster from 1992, who went by the moniker “clueless chuck”:

Mike Warnke is/was a prominent Christian comedian who based his entire ministry on his assertion that he was at one point in time a high priest in a Satanic cult and he turned his life completely over to the Lord. He wrote a book over this “experience” called The Satan Seller (which became a prominent reference text in many circles on how Satanic cults operate) and gave his testimony in many locations over the last 20 or so years, winning many people for the Lord.

It would appear that Mike Warnke’s testimony is a lie.

In retrospect, I can totally see how I should have been skeptical of the joker from day one. Let this be known up front: the dude was FUNNY, and funny in ways you had to hear and see to get. He could DELIVER a punch line with perfect timing, tell a brilliant story to capture you, and then (and this is key, I’m finding) turn the story on a dime and go into full-on preach mode. When I was a college-radio DJ and VERY young in my Christian life, Mike Warnke skits and stories were a staple of my radio programs for a time, because they could make you laugh AND make you think. Or, perhaps, manipulate your thoughts.

I think part of why I didn’t see through Warnke’s act and start asking questions was because I was so young, though. I mean, you can see my youth in my first USENET post about Warnke; I talk about “one of my heroes, Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian who God has built an incredible ministry on over the past few years…” It’s so easy to take common American hero-worship and spin the Christianese on it to make it sound like something more profound and important than hero-worship. You can so easily get wrapped up in the larger-than-life preacher or comedian or artist and forget that he’s just this guy, and guys screw up. And in American celebrity – even celebrity in the Church – so much of the life they live is behind closed doors, and you have no way of knowing who’s straight-up and who’s screwed up.

As I think about it, Mike Warnke’s downfall was a defining moment in my early Christian walk. It took the dangers of celebrity and placed them front and center in a way I wasn’t expecting, and forced me to respond to them.

And it did something else – it put in front of me honest, thinking Christians who were willing to take time to talk to a 20-year-old punk explain to him, in words of one syllable, what exactly they were doing and why, in a way that has never ceased to amaze me.

One of the people who responded to my initial call-for-information on the rec.music.christian newsgroup was Eric Pement, who was at the time editor to Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein, the authors of the original Cornerstone Magazine article. I immediately struck up an e-mail conversation with Eric, and explained (in very schoolboy ways) why I was skeptical – and he wrote back, and was very gracious in pointing me towards free access to the article, its sidebars, and other documents (and I’m still in awe of the 170 footnotes Cornerstone mag published with the article…the thing was a MASTERPIECE of documentation).

And what really hit me was when I wrote back, after doing all the reading and coming to the conclusion that the Cornerstone article was right, how Eric responded with RIDICULOUS humility. My recollection after 15 years might be bad (it’s a bit difficult to save e-mails for that long), but I got the sense that even with that weight of evidence, he’d gladly retract the story the next day if somebody would come forward with concrete evidence that Warnke really had led a coven of 1500, or been ANY level of decadent he’d claimed to be in The Satan Seller, instead of a standard late 60’s square.

He was just as much of a skeptic as a scientist was supposed to be, in other words; he had his hypothesis, and he sought out any way that it might be wrong. He was a brilliantly critical journalist. And he was far more theologically sound than anybody I had ever communicated with across the internets.

In retrospect, there’s a lot about the type of Christian I’ve become at this point in my life that was informed by those e-mails with Eric Pement, and I really owe the guy a measure of thanks. (I stumbled across Eric’s homepage while typing this up. It’s kind of cool for the geek in me.)

There are probably more stories to be told about my former life in USENET, but this has been on my mind all day and pretty much needed to get into words.