Again in tragedy, a nation's eyes turn to TV

Media: With facts scarce, coverage of the Kennedy plane crash has been more a reflection of culture

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 19, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Every so often, almost as if on schedule, something happens to the Kennedys, and we gather around our television sets to watch them deal with yet another unspeakable grief," CBS Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer said yesterday.

And so it was this weekend, as many of us started out to enjoy a hot, lazy midsummer Saturday and suddenly found ourselves sucked back into the nightmare that started in Dallas in 1963, into all the horrible Kennedy history that we have grown up with on TV since.

You knew it was serious by 10 a.m. when you saw CBS' Dan Rather looking like a 60-year-old-plus anchorman who didn't have enough time in makeup. Rather was grim, and Rather knows. Nobody has been closer to this saga than Rather, who made his name in Dallas as a kid reporter telling Walter Cronkite and the world that the president was dead. I'm not sure competition -- in the sense of who was first with what and when -- matters much in the new TV news environment. But Rather was the first of the big anchor guns on camera. And it does matter to this extent: ABC had Elizabeth Vargas anchoring its coverage until Peter Jennings came on about 2 p.m., and if there is anything worse than listening to Barbara Walters blather about her feelings when you are looking for information, it is Vargas interviewing Walters about her feelings and interjecting her own all over the place.

Vargas was dreadful, saying she didn't want to talk about "Greek tragedy" and then asking Walters if this wasn't just like a Greek tragedy. And when she was corrected on facts by reporters in the field, she seemed downright peevish, as when she found out you didn't necessarily need to file a flight plan to take the kind of trip John F. Kennedy Jr. took Friday night with his wife and sister-in-law.

Brian Williams at least held the fort on NBC and MSNBC until Brokaw arrived on the scene. Brokaw never seemed to get a fix on the story, as NBC ran what seemed like the same few images of John-John saluting his father's coffin, John-John under the president's desk, John with his shirt off and baseball cap on backward, and John kissing his bride's hand in the picture of courtliness on his wedding day.

But that's the nuts and bolts of news chasing. By Saturday night and then fully by yesterday, it was clear that this was more about culture than news. There were few new facts yesterday, yet the coverage continued and the audience stayed tuned.

The appeal wasn't hard to figure. The story does resonate with fables of dynasties and families cursed by the gods.

"This is 30 years to the weekend of Chappaquiddick," NBC's Tim Russert said, and he didn't have to explain what that meant for most viewers.

But you don't have to believe in divine retribution to feel the need to be in front of the television set to hear the latest on the fate of Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law. If you are of the baby boomer generation or older, you grew up with the Kennedy kids just as you did with Patty Duke or Jerry Mathers or any of the other children who were on TV in the 1960s and beyond.

Those images of "John-John" becoming "John" that NBC and the others kept replaying all weekend had been seared into our memories, along with a narrative that helps us make sense of them in connection with our own lives.

For many of us who have moved from neighborhoods and towns in which we were raised, we probably "know" media figures like John Kennedy Jr. and his sister, Caroline, better than we do some of our cousins or possibly even siblings. There is a feeling of community when the pictures in our heads connect with those on the screen.

That's the way it is in a culture in which television is the principal storyteller. And it looks as if it is only just beginning to construct the mega-narrative of death, grief, mourning and burial -- the TV ritual we experienced with Diana.

"The anguish here could be drawn out for days," CNN's Martin Savidge told viewers yesterday as he stood outside the Kennedy compound, lamenting the lack of new facts.

Facts would be nice. But in a deeper sense, we are beyond facts. What many of us need most of all right now is just to be there in front of our TV sets, standing in the sands of American history outside the house where so many of the darkest chapters have been written in our lifetime.

Pub Date: 07/19/99

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