(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:
- The plane is reported missing early Saturday morning;
- 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.  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.
 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…