Media Deathwatch of a Favorite Son

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, August 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

Media Deathwatch of a Favorite Son

Rust, Michael, Insight on the News

All eyes -- willing and unwilling -- have been focused on the death of John E Kennedy Jr., thanks to media saturation that has been rivaling coverage of the death of Princess Diana.

The weekend of July 17-18 was eerily familiar to media consumers. Cameras, reporters and commentators all fell into place once again to focus on a tragedy centered around the Kennedy family. The disappearance of the single-engine Piper Saratoga six-seater plane piloted by George editor and publisher John F. Kennedy Jr. united U.S. media, along with many foreign counterparts, in a vigil at the family's compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., as they waited for the inevitable word that the late president's son, along with JFK Jr.'s wife and sister-in-law, were gone.

Some media consumers were reminded of the furor surrounding the death of Princess Diana, or the somewhat more sedate deathwatch that marked the passing of JFK Jr.'s mother, Jacqueline Onassis. And, as in each previous media saturation, news reporters and commentators were questioning their own practices within days, and sometimes hours, of the immediate breaking of the story. Given this redundant soul-searching, do the media ever learn anything from these death vigils?

"No," says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. Sabato, the author of Feeding Frenzy and a widely respected media expert, tells Insight, "The media learned just one thing and one thing only: ratings/ sales. That's it. The ratings or sales are driving coverage. As long as the ratings continue, the saturation continues; they drop, the coverage drops."

All this has special poignancy in the case of Kennedy, a celebrity, literally, from the beginning. Following the disappearance of the plane he was piloting, TV reports aired footage of the 13-day-old son of the president-elect leaving the hospital with his mother in 1960. He never experienced a time when he wasn't in the public eye.

The youthful Kennedy handled this celebrity with commendable aplomb, for the most part not letting photographers and gossip chroniclers dominate his life. While his sister, Caroline Schlossberg, echoed their mother's avoidance of the spotlight, Kennedy explored the concept of politics as a part of American celebrity culture through George, often described as a magazine about politics for people not interested in politics.

There was a grim irony, then, in the final media frenzy surrounding JFK Jr. The plane disappeared at 9:40 p.m. Friday, July 16, and by the next morning 24-hour-news cable channels CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC had embarked on virtual nonstop coverage. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all gave special play to the tragedy Saturday evening and concentrated their Sunday-morning news programs on the disappearance. By that time, the nation's three largest newsweeklies had thrown deadlines away and remade their issues to put the 38-year-old Kennedy's face on their covers. All were on newsstands Monday, barely 60 hours following the disappearance of the plane.

"We pretty much redid the whole edition" Newsweek spokesman Roy Brunett told the Associated Press. Of its 55 editorial pages, 29 were devoted to the cover package of stories. U.S. News & World Report already had closed its edition Saturday with a cover story on memory loss and had printed nearly 2.8 million copies when publisher Mort Zuckerman, like Kennedy a favorite of gossip columnists and society chroniclers in New York, decided to junk them in favor of a new issue. Sources at the magazine said trucks en route to the airport with the magazine were turned around after Zuckerman's decision. The result was a new edition with an 11-page report on "The Kennedy Curse" on newsstands Sunday.

Time went its rivals one better, going with an obituary cover line, "John F. Kennedy Jr. 1960-1999," even before the Coast Guard abandoned its search-and-rescue mission and, more to the point, while its rivals were honoring the official possibility that survivors might be found. …

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