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-
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
"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
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
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