Last Saturday, July 17, at 6 A.M. of the penultimate morning of a 1,700-mile weeklong Proustian ramble through the Western plains, I awoke in the Best Western Inn in Jackson, Wyo. The morning lay before me; ABC was scheduled to broadcast five hours of the British Open from Carnoustie, Scotland. All in all, an inviting prospect.
When, around 6:30, I turned on the tube and conducted a quick surf, just to make sure that all was in working order for the coverage of the events unfolding on the Firth of Tay, there–on CBS–was the newscaster-broadcast reporter Anthony Mason saying something about John F. Kennedy Jr. and an airplane. I watched, my interest not purely in what was being reported but who was doing the reporting. With the same pride I reserve for the nonpecuniary accomplishments of my friends’ children as well as my own, I have watched Anthony grow up from a little boy into a measured, intelligent TV newsman.
But those words can hardly be applied to the medium in which he has found his vocation. For the next few hours, until ABC finally wised up and kicked the Open over to ESPN, I watched the TV press try to build a J.F.K.-“John-John” story. My contempt for these people now knows no bounds.
Here is why.
Little was known at the outset. A single-engine plane carrying famous passengers, bound the previous evening from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard, had not reached its destination and was presumed to have gone down somewhere in either Long Island Sound or Nantucket Sound. A search-and-rescue effort, appropriately massive given the celebrity of the pilot of the missing plane, was under way.
An hour or so later, skipping between the three networks, with occasional forays onto CNN, the story was beginning to take shape. Here is what this viewer judged it to be: not an energetic, thoughtful effort by the media, admittedly somewhat speculative (given the skimpy state of information), to supply its audience with the whys and wherefores. Not an intelligent effort, in the absence of reliable answers, to ask the right questions. None of this.
What was under way, masked as “coverage” of a “breaking” story, was an entirely cynical effort to whip up a foaming crest of viewer hysteria deep enough to float a battleship’s worth of parasitical talking heads, celebrity puffers, deifiers and mythologues, “Kennedy watchers” and “Kennedy experts,” and so on–including related myths.
Like locusts and leeches they descend! After the first half-hour, there is no news left. All that is and can be known has been reported. Yet on and on they drone, like the search craft, but–unlike the Coast Guard–the mission of these people is neither enlightenment nor rescue but self-aggrandized attaching of self to the celebrity–the famous name–of the missing pilot.
Within the first hour, the dread words are heard on ABC, “Here, live from the Hamptons, is Barbara Walters.” Two names that coarsen reporting of an event that should be reported with a strict attention to accuracy and information, and nothing else. Now the Disney Network’s Chief Leech, Exploiter of the Loss & Grief of Others, is heard from. Just as she did when the unhappy Princess of Wales died, Baba tells us how well she knew the younger J.F.K. Is there no limit to this ghastly woman’s intrusive self-importance? You can take the girl out of the Catskills, but all the cosmetic “work” and all the Vaseline-swathing and speech-coaching there ever was can’t take the Catskills out of the girl.
Ms. Walters will prove to be not alone: The following morning, in an “appreciation” of the missing pilot that disclaims any intention of trading on another’s tragedy for personal vainglory, a well-known print gossipist will use the first-person singular and plural no fewer than 25 times in a 400-word piece, a frequency that makes unclear exactly to whom tribute is being paid.
Beyond the name borne by the missing pilot, the broader reverberations of this tragedy–for such it always is when young lives are suddenly, wastefully and senselessly (a word I use, in retrospect, advisedly) terminated–are conjectural. The loss is personal, familial, a private matter for friends and family, for those with firsthand knowledge (I do not include interviewers in this category) of the pleasure of the missing persons’ company. Their disappearance deserves to be treated as such. After all, with all due respect, it is not as if a great nation has been left leaderless; a vital, essential creative force for art, science or political economy–truth-making in any form–extinguished. A hundred years from now, it seems unlikely that cultural historians will pay much attention to George when they plot the road map of American history. Children have not been left orphaned, nor the lives of thousands desolated by war or famine or calamity or statesmanly misjudgment. Nor did the young Kennedy’s disappearance occur in circumstances redolent of scandal, or of foul play.
Unless, as some will, myself included, you consider extreme carelessness–Daisy and Tom Buchanan ( Gatsby ) quality carelessness–to be first cousin to scandal. We are said, after all, to be motivated to pay attention to the rich and famous because their glamorous lives have some relevance to our own. Because they, too, make mistakes beyond the capacity of their money or fame to set to rights.
Of this, however, the “news” media give us nothing. All through the morning I listen for the words “Pilot Error.” Words that you can be sure would have been on the tongue of every newscaster had someone else been at the controls of the missing Piper Saratoga. Obviously, because we are talking about J.F.K. Jr., you understand , those two words are a network no-no.
I grew up in not one but two flying families. None of the questions to which I want to know the answers are addressed in the early going. Had J.F.K. Jr. done this flight before? Why hadn’t he notified the Martha’s Vineyard tower (by phone from New Jersey, even) of his ETA? Did he know the call sign and frequency of the tower? Why was there no conversation between the Piper Saratoga and the tower if the plane was descending in final approach? Given the executive jet traffic on the Vineyard, it seems improbable there was none. Did the plane carry flotation gear? (Apparently not.) Who flies single-engine over open water without life vests? What about the evidence of the tower radar? Who was there to note the plane’s precipitous 12-second drop, then its disappearance from the scope? What kind of a pilot was he, anyway? (Significantly, the interview with his Florida flight instructor, a man who looks old enough to have flown with the Lafayette Escadrille, never addressed this point, only what a swell young man J.F.K. Jr. was, what a regular guy.) There are people behind the wheels of a Mercedes who shouldn’t have driver’s licenses, and one can say the same about flying. Often, for celebrities, corners are cut, and things come easily to them for which the rest of us have to apply in triplicate.
None of this is discussed the way it should be. Instead, the talking heads show up in force, dispensing the usual bromides about “America’s royal family,” haunted by tragedy and affliction. It is true that there has been a lot of thrill-seeking in the younger generation and that it has often ended badly and in some cases lethally. Perhaps we should be looking inside the family for what the Baba Wawas prefer to ascribe to Sophoclean fate. The children of well-known people are twice cursed: Not only do they see their parents and forebears for whom they are, but they are forced to live with public myths about those elders which they may know to be patently false. Consider this family: The founding father, the patriarch Joe, was a crook and an adulterer; their fathers and uncles were–variously–adulterers, bullies, liars; in one case, there was a mother who sold herself for money; but each and every one was hailed to a man and woman by the media as “royalty,” as heroes, as paragons. Placed on pedestals. This, to me, is the true Kennedy curse: the gap between the fact and the publicity. It must be hell to live with. It must be cold in the shadow of the pedestal.
That the press should so patently turn away from truth to promote this image makes me sick. A month or so ago, a friend–somewhat younger than myself, and at the very pinnacle of TV journalism–asked, “Have the media always been this corrupt?” A striking question, one to which, at the time, I could give no satisfactory answer. When I was growing up, one held the press in a certain respect; then as now, gossip columnists were assumed to be on the take, but otherwise, generally speaking, it was assumed that the press saw its function as its public did: to gather and report the news people needed to know in order to maintain their purchase in an increasingly complicated world. I know better now. The sooner we all do, the better for us. In fact, perhaps our only chance.