Shades of Saint Diana in Coverage of Kennedy Drama

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

If they're America's first family, as the common wisdom goes, they're also television's first family.

Although nationally prominent since the 1930s, the Kennedys' profile evolved and grew in the public eye most strikingly as TV's did. In fact, it's hard uncoupling them from this medium in recalling just the last four decades. From the pivotal JFK-Nixon debates to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, through other good times, misfortunes and misdeeds all the way to the present, members of this mythic, gifted, tortured, resilient clan have had their lives and deaths chronicled by the TV lens. And now this.

Mayday, Mayday.

If it's hard separating the Kennedys from TV, it's even harder extricating TV from the culture of romantic exaggeration.

By nearly all accounts, John F. Kennedy Jr. rose above the encumbrances of privilege, glamour, great looks and regal lineage to become a respected, grounded, all-around good guy whose handsome head wasn't in the clouds.

Yet that's where some TV anchors, reporters and commentators placed him--echoing the unearned sainthood conferred on heroine-come-lately Princess Diana--after the Piper 32 he was piloting went down in the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., apparently extending his family's nearly unbelievable string of fatalities. A history of loss and anguish so improbable that even the nonsuperstitious are again calling it a "curse."

Excuse the past tense here, for as this was written Sunday, no evidence of survivors had surfaced, and it appeared Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were dead.

So time for eulogies, including a mighty cranking up of hyperbole that swiftly began assuming a life of its own as the broadcast networks and cable all-news channels on early Saturday morning began flying with this story in close formation all the way into the evening. They lost millions by blowing off commercials for most of this coverage, which zoomed into Sunday with only a little less force.

Consequently, a president's son whom most Americans were probably aware of but did not dwell on is now on the tips of their tongues.

Although most of the TV coverage of this tragedy has been strong--reporting both difficult breaking news and an emotional human interest story about a star-crossed family--some has been unmistakably Dianaesque. And like her, Kennedy appears destined to be closely scrutinized, glorified and celebrated far more in death than in life when to most Americans he was less a widely beloved national figure--regardless of what you're hearing now--than a good-looking celebrity with a famous name.

Although he published the middle-brow political magazine, George, he owed his prominence mostly to family trappings and poignant memories of him as a toddler playing in the Oval Office and saluting the casket of his murdered father in 1963.

Yet remember how the U.S. media anointed "our princess" in 1997? Some were at it again during a weekend of TV.

On Saturday, someone titled Kennedy "our crown prince." Someone else: "He was America's favorite son." Another voice: "We followed him like we would follow one of our own." Another: "He was an icon to the American people." Another: "He seemed somehow to belong to all of us." Another: "Something has happened to a member of our family." And another: "He grew up right before our eyes."

Well, maybe if you were his nanny.

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Actually, Kennedy was just turning 3 when his father died in Dallas. Thereafter, he and his sister, Caroline, "disappeared from sight somewhat" as their mother reared them mostly out of public sight, veteran journalist and Kennedy watcher Hugh Sidey noted on NBC Sunday. That's borne out by the present coverage. Television pictures of Kennedy as a young child in 1963 skip to him speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Then it's on to his marriage to Bessette and launching of George in 1995, which he helped publicize by making the rounds of top TV interviewers.

Just as his and his wife's obits, in effect, are now making the rounds of news programs. A "CBS News Sunday Morning" profile ended with this boomlet: "Today a nation captivated by the romance of John and Carolyn contemplates what might have been." A nation captivated by the romance? Or just some journalists?

Just as some of the early TV coverage raised reasonable questions about JFK Jr.'s decision to fly, however, hardly everyone spent Sunday romanticizing. On NBC's "Meet the Press," for example, New York Times columnist William Safire rejected the popular "curse" metaphor while observing about Kennedy's misfortune:

"When you look at [this] tragic accident, someone who has flown a plane for a year, to make a night flight over an ocean is an unacceptable risk and bad judgment."

Which co-guest New York Daily News columnist Mike Barnicle--a neighbor of the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport--found intolerable, insisting "fate" controlled Kennedy's destiny and that the decision to fly was "aggressively noble."

Different brushes, different strokes.

Not that the deaths of Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law aren't deeply sad and tragic, especially in the context of other miseries that have befallen the Kennedys. And who wouldn't be moved by this latest sorrow, as Dan Rather was when he choked-up, teared-up and came perilously close to bawling while signing off a Saturday night CBS News special on this mishap?

Yet however painful to loved ones, those deaths are significant in a broader sense only because the plane's pilot was a Kennedy.

"We're all honorary Kennedys just by being members of this generation," biographer-journalist Richard Reeves said on CBS Saturday. "You can't invent a family saga as good as the Kennedys," he added later.

That includes those drawing gaudy Nielsens. Yet Americans who once adored watching the rich and haughty fall on their face-lifts and brought to their waxed knees in "Dallas" and "Dynasty," inevitably respond to the real-life cliffhangers of the Kennedys with benevolence and compassion, suffering as they suffer, crying as they cry, political ideologies fading to black.

It's a cliche, but that old line about the Kennedys' history being more bizarre than fiction works perfectly here. If someone had written a script about a family at once so accomplished and so often in the cross hairs of death, it would boomerang back for a rewrite. The public would laugh. Critics would howl. Too over the top. Too unbelievable.

"It's like 'Macbeth,' like 'Richard III,' " author-journalist Haynes Johnson noted on TV. "Too much success too young, wrapped up in one family over and over again. These favored people. Young, handsome, good-looking, all the advantages, flying off in their own airplanes, all these beautiful women." Johnson paused. "And it all comes down. . . ."

Saturday's earliest coverage was more J.R. Ewing than Shakespeare. At about 5:15 a.m., when MSNBC began babbling mindlessly about Kennedy's missing plane--reporting a story with little story to report and resorting even to showing pictures of the type of chopper that would search for the presumably downed craft--you wanted to shout, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say."

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Later, washing ashore like debris from Kennedy's plane, came the inevitable rumors and unsubstantiated tall stories--reported, then discounted, then reported, then (honest-angel, cross-your-heart) finally discounted. Until later resurrected. By 7:35 a.m., CNN had rerun portions of Larry King's 1995 interview with Kennedy and ABC had excerpted Kennedy with Barbara Walters that same year. "What is your favorite vegetable?" For the record, he replied spinach.

Meanwhile, on came Friends of John, and anyone else who had met or even brushed shoulders with him.

By midmorning, the inevitable "Newzak" lulls notwithstanding, the reporting had moved up many notches to first-rate, some of the reporters worth noting NBC's Robert Hager, ABC's John Nance and Lisa Stark and CBS' Anthony Mason and Bob Orr. And the feed that CBS periodically took from its Boston station WBZ-TV was really on the beam.

Hours earlier, beating competing first-stringers Peter Jennings of ABC and Tom Brokaw of NBC by hours, that tightly coiled CBS iron-man Rather had clanked onto the set and settled in with "CBS Saturday Morning" anchors as if he had been planted there all night just waiting for a story--any story--to break. He remained until 3 p.m. and then went on to later anchor "The CBS Evening News" and a special "48 Hours."

It was while concluding the latter that Rather got all emotional, perhaps many viewers tearing up with him while again witnessing a bit more of the Kennedy fabric unravel.

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