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Jewish World Review July 29, 1999 /16 Av, 5759

David Corn

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Rest in Hype --
WHEN DID YOU SCREAM at the television screen? For me, the moment came last Wednesday, when MSNBC’s John Gibson wondered on air if “way too much effort and money” was being spent on the recovery of the wreckage of the plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. It took great nerve for Gibson—whose network (like CNN and Fox News Cable) was pumping out never-ending, regurgitative coverage—to question the extent of the salvage operation.

He should have been on his knees, thankful for the ratings boost brought on by this accident.

The awful death of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters provided the national media, which craves that One Big Story, another opportunity to show how inanely it can behave. By now, you’ve probably heard enough blah-blah-blahing about the media treatment of the event, but I cannot resist a late hit. When there was no news, the cable stations repeated nonnews incessantly, shoving aside coverage of most everything else.

Democrats and Republicans were slugging it out last week in the House over a weighted-toward-the-rich GOP tax cut of $792 billion—that’s a mess of money—but the cameras were trained on the folks who had made the pilgrimage to the Tribeca loft of John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette.

“John John manifests everything that is good in this country,” sobbed one tv-friendly mourner who never met the guy. For expert commentary, Fox News Channel turned to a man who runs a company managing the images and names of famous dead people, such as Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X.

Kennedy’s “fame will only grow now,” he opined. What empty calories. Before funeral arrangements had been announced, MSNBC rushed a Catholic nun on air to discuss whether a burial at sea would be in keeping with Catholic dogma.

Short answer: yes. But the network stretched the segment to kill time. Fox News Channel enlisted David Dinkins for help on Thursday. Why Dinkins? Because, as anchor David Asman explained, Dinkins “was mayor of New York when John Kennedy was here.” What did Dinkins add to the national media conversation? He informed us that “the women referred to him as a hunk.” Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Even levelheaded reporters such as CNN’s Frank Sesno slipped. Before the bodies were located, he somberly noted that the nation was maintaining a “painful vigil.” The nation?

Most people were at work.

On Thursday, television cameras showed a barely changing shot of the USS Briscoe for hours, and Chris Jansing on MSNBC said that Kennedy was “known so well to us.” Not really—unless you believe he was “known” because millions read about him in People. I knew him slightly—we overlapped a year at college and then we were acquaintances in New York in the mid-1980s—and I didn’t feel that Jansing was speaking for me.

That same day, The Washington Post’s “Style” section ran a piece on “a grieving nation” that ludicrously lumped Kennedy with his father, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis and John Lennon. The article approvingly quoted Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory, who noted, “When you do have people of that magnitude [die], there is a kind of collective participation that takes place.” It’s not an insult to Kennedy to wonder on what basis he rates the magnitude of Lennon and King. And despite the mountain of flowers that grew on the doorstep of his apartment, how collective was the grief? In another article on the same page of the Post, reporter Emily Wax spoke to a number of twenty- and thirtysomethings in Washington and found them reasonably untouched by the death. “Personally affected?” asked Laura Bull, 20. “Maybe for Americans who are not my age. But I mean, I’m too young for that. I never thought of him until George magazine.”

Kennedy was a decent fellow, who bore his good-looks-enhanced celebrity with class and a portion of humility. He published an erratic magazine that sought to attract people to politics, though it unfortunately focused more on the game and glitz of politics than the substance. But the above-mentioned “Style” article went so far as to compare his demise to those of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In a media universe dominated by celebrity, the death of a celebrity may well be the paramount news event. (Years ago there was a wonderful parody of the New York Post that bore a front page announcing a nuclear war. Michael Jackson and millions die, the headline shouted.) Ultimately, there wasn’t much to say about Kennedy’s death.

The hype exceeded the information stream. The television news and the newsweeklies had declared this a mega-story, which meant there was all this space to fill—but little of substance to put into that hole. Consequently, the television networks aired meaningless footage of circling ships that was reminiscent of the long-burning Yule log WPIX used to show on Christmas Eve. Did we really need to see Daily News columnist Mike Barnicle outside the Kennedy compound, vulture-like, saying that at least Kennedy’s life was not taken by a psycho killer? (Barnicle deserves special attention for his prattle-filled commentary. During the burial at sea, he observed that the Kennedy crash was “bathed in irony.” Name one example of it. Coincidences, yes. The fatal accident did occur on the 30th anniversary of Chappaquidick. But there’s not much ironic about an airplane slamming into the ocean.) Certainly, the Kennedy crash was a major story. But it again proved that much of the big media is incapable of maintaining a sense of proportion.

This was a sad event—but one without much meaning. In itself, Kennedy’s death, as tragic as it was for those who loved and cared for him, doesn’t bear deep cultural, social or political significance. It just offered more evidence of the trite-but-true rule of life: stuff happens (and it can happen to anyone), and each of us lives our days perilously close to nonexistence. As the Kennedy clan returned to shore after casting the ashes of Kennedy and the Bessettes upon a choppy ocean, Time’s Richard Stengel on MSNBC solemnly pronounced that, in years ahead, “we will tell our children” about this. It’s no reflection on Kennedy, but I doubt it.

Done deals

In Washington, both political parties have been trying to brand the other as responsible for a “do-nothing” Congress. But, as Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, the coauthors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press), point out, Congress this year has been quite productive, with a bipartisan majority churning out legislation sought by corporate lobbyists. Congress passed Y2K immunity legislation that would make it tougher for consumers and small companies to seek compensation from businesses for problems associated with Y2K computer failures. The measure would also hamper the filing of class-action lawsuits related to Y2K glitches. The National Association of Manufacturers and other business lobbies had drooled over this legislation for months, and Congress delivered.

(Clinton, who at first threatened to veto the legislation, has now agreed to sign a revised bill that closely resembles the original.)

Both the House and the Senate passed a measure supported by Democrats and Republicans that would allow investment companies, banks and securities firms to merge. In this brave new world, Mokhiber and Weissman speculate, “The financial lobby would tighten its political stranglehold on Washington. Giant conglomerates would lock in a too-big-to-fail status, ensuring a future marked by bailouts of mega-financial firms. The mega-companies will invade consumer privacy by trading insurance, bank and other personal data between affiliates, and then conducting intrusive direct marketing schemes accordingly.”

The House of Representatives also has passed the so-called “bankruptcy reform” bill, and the Senate is poised to do the same. This legislation, a gift to the credit card industry, would make it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy and for debtors to prioritize food and housing payments ahead of credit card debt. On these fronts, a do-nothing Congress would have been a better alternative.

The issue is not how much Congress does, but what it does.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


07/28/99: Cherchez Les Femmes
07/22/99: Freedom’s Just Another Word
07/16/99: In the Money
07/14/99: Basta!
06/22/99: Whose Public Service Is It, Anyway?
06/17/99: The Book On Bill
06/15/99: George W. owes Bubba big
06/10/99: You’re Okay, I’m Running For Senate
06/04/99: Gore to South Africans: Drop Dead
06/02/99: Gone Fishin’
05/28/99: It’s in The Water
05/26/99: Pistol-Whipped
05/20/99: Combat Pay
05/19/99: Meet the New Boss
05/14/99: A 37-Year Losing Streak
05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn