Public Tragedy and Private Feeling Behind the Mass Mourning for JFK Jr. - Modern Media and Ways as Ancientas Greek Myths

By Sara Terry, Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Public Tragedy and Private Feeling Behind the Mass Mourning for JFK Jr. - Modern Media and Ways as Ancientas Greek Myths


Sara Terry, Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Call it an odd kind of intimacy - one that's shared by millions.

Grief, sorrow, mourning: They're all intensely personal emotions attached to the loss of a loved one. But they also happen to be feelings that built into a massive public crescendo this week as Americans mourned the tragic death of a young man they hardly knew - John F. Kennedy Jr.

Why? Already, critics chide the media for overwhelming the airwaves with nonstop Kennedy coverage. Others blame a celebrity- obsessed culture.

But some cultural observers say those responses are too simple. Such criticisms do not begin to plumb the depths of a culture in which modern media technology increasingly brings the public into the close familiarity of the private and personal. Nor does it take into account mankind's centuries-old need to weave a cultural fabric that relies on mythic tales and heroes to make sense of everyday life.

"There's an expansion of the intimate domain through these media," says Joshua Meyrowitz, author of "No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior."

"People now respond to people in the public realm who would normally be strangers to them, as if they were family members and friends," says Mr. Meyrowitz, who teaches communication at the University of New Hampshire.

"That's what television does," he says. "It provides millions of people with a sense of intimacy."

The nature of media coverage of celebrities and their lives - and deaths - has grown more relentless in recent years, thanks in large part to the growing number of media outlets and the competition among them. But outbursts of public sorrow are nothing new, say experts, particularly when a celebrity's life is cut short. They note the cases of Diana, Princess of Wales, and John Lennon in recent years, but also point back to Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Rudolph Valentino.

And in the 19th century, literary characters often absorbed the public's interest the way media celebrities do today, says Neil Postman, chairman of the department of culture and communication at New York University.

Case of Sherlock Holmes

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, mainly because Doyle was tired of writing about him, reaction was overwhelming. "People were heartsick and outraged," says Mr. Postman. "It's always been like this this. Whether it's fiction or the kind of soap opera-ish stories that are part of our politics today. People always do have a kind of identification. Our culture is bound by narratives, by stories.

"For most people, John F. Kennedy Jr. was a character in a play, a character in a story, just the way Sherlock Holmes was," he says. "When he's lost, then people react to it very emotionally." Constantly rehearsing the details of somebody's life and death, he says, shows that people "are trying to continue the story. We always try to do that when the story ends before we're prepared for the ending."

And for those people who've managed to draw back a bit from the magnetic pull of nonstop coverage - with news reporters often reporting there's no news to report - JFK Jr.'s death may serve to provoke profound questions and individual reflections on life, say many cultural observers.

"These celebrities are in a way like Greek gods," says Richard Louv, author of "The Web of Life" and San Diego Union Tribune columnist.

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