Hunk Sunk! And Other Headlines You Won't See on CNN
Yes, we're going through post-Kennedy plane crash coverage withdrawal.
The symptoms? A feeling of emptiness after a week-long drumbeat of somber pontification. A tendency to aimlessly meander around the dial searching for Kennedy cronies -- the more fawning, the better -- to add their overheated two cents. An insatiable urge to see every frame of footage of John F. Kennedy Jr. ever shot.
The cure? A kick to the head, preferably Dan Rather's.
But before ripping into the carnival of televised idiocy surrounding the deaths of John Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette, let's state something obvious, just so everyone's clear about this: Nobody deserves to die in an offshore plane crash, and their families certainly deserve sympathy.
Now back to your regularly scheduled bile.
For those of you who spent the past couple of weeks hiding under a rock, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren Bessette were in a plane crash off the shore of Martha's Vineyard. Search crews found the bodies a few days ago, some time after the only thing that had turned up was some Prada handbags.
We know about the handbag, see, because its discovery -- like every other piece of flotsam or jetsam found in a 50-mile radius -- was treated as breaking news on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
That's almost understandable. Television news is under extraordinary pressure to report news as it happens, so commenting on information that may later lead to a cogent news story is a key competitive tactic. If that means broadcasting incomplete or incorrect data, well, that's TV news in the '90s.
One of the lasting images of the past weekend won't be the Coast Guard cutters plowing through the waters around Martha's Vineyard, searching for any sign of life. Instead it's Dan Rather -- once a respected newsman -- fumbling his way through a live report by warning viewers that CBS was broadcasting "raw data" and "rushing it to air," to boot. So "be careful," Dan warned, as initial information like this is "often wrong."
Silly us. We thought the duty of sorting through fact and fiction to produce an accurate report usually fell on the shoulders of those producing the newscast, not those watching it. But again, given the sorry state of TV news today, almost understandable.
What's not understandable is why every anchor, reporter and pundit able to string a few platitudes together felt compelled to channel Marc Antony and bury Kennedy by praising him. Until Sunday night, the Coast Guard was still looking for crash survivors. But as early as Saturday afternoon, we were treated to Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw getting all teary and referring to the victims in the past tense a day early. Nothing like the lack of a body, after all, to spoil a good deathwatch.
Then, there were the pundits -- a loathsome parade of hangers on, sycophants and bootlickers fumbling through tattered copies of Roget's Thesaurus to find more accolades to bestow upon the newly deceased. In the span of 24 hours, John Jr. went from a nice kid who put out a bland magazine and flunked the state bar exam a couple of times to "an idol," "a crown prince" and "fallen royalty."
We're all for speaking well of the dead. But when the rush to canonization comes at the expense of any semblance of perspective, the media and its attendant mouthpieces serve nobody well.
However mystifying the complete and near-simultaneous professional meltdown of all the network's talking heads may be, it pales in comparison to an even more incomprehensible question.
Why is this news?
Or at the very least, why is this deserving of the gavel-to-gavel, damn-our-regularly-scheduled-programming treatment?
A couple reasons: That spat with the British a couple hundred years ago notwithstanding, Americans yearn to be ruled by a monarchy. And the Kennedys are the closest thing we have to the requisite inbred, toothy aristocrats. What's more, most network news types travel in the Kennedys' social circle. ABC's Charlie Gibson wasn't first on the scene in Martha's Vineyard because of journalistic pluck and resourcefulness -- he just happened to be vacationing there. When you're splitting a lunch tab with a guy at Tavern on the Green, you're more likely to be grief-stricken than us commoners. And of course, there are the baby boomers -- especially those employed in the news media -- who still haven't gotten over the youthful promise of Camelot, and mourn its inevitable erosion over time.
No matter the reason, it doesn't justify the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments we saw on the air, or the near-continuous network coverage. If the coverage offered something of substance it would almost be excusable, but listening to wearisome wags carry on about a divine Kennedy curse wasn't news. At best, it's little more than white noise. At worst, it's spontaneous revisionism.
Outside of the murders of JFK and Robert Kennedy, consider the "tragedies" that have befallen the family. Edward Kennedy drowned a woman; Joe Kennedy's own reckless driving paralyzed another. Bobby Jr. introduced his brother David to drugs; David later died of a drug overdose. William Kennedy Smith had a problem with "no means no." Michael Kennedy schtupped his children's babysitter, then drunkenly skied into a tree.
In none of these events did the capricious hand of fate extend a chill finger toward an innocent Kennedy. Each one made decisions leading to his own misfortune and, very frequently, someone else's.
Truth be told, John-John is no exception to this pattern of reckless endangerment. Despite having less than 50 hours of flight experience under his belt, he elected to fly in difficult conditions with a physical impairment that could have affected his ability to man his plane.
But we didn't hear any of this over the past week. Instead, we saw Larry King interviews from the early '90s, Tim Russert's vulpine mining of old John-John news for signs and portents, and snuffling eulogies to the long-gone Camelot. Whatever the networks did this weekend, it wasn't reporting. It was the adult equivalent of high school yearbook editors putting pictures of their friends on every page.
Here's another statistic you probably didn't hear on the networks any time in the past week: The same night Kennedy's plane went down, 10 other planes piloted by amateurs crashed. Do we even know the names of those victims? Do those 10 crashes count as news?
In a country yearning for the idyllic days of Camelot, evidently not.
Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser, Philip Michaels.
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