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Mourning Television: Covering the shocking, sudden death of JFK Jr.

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Where were you when you heard that John F. Kennedy was dead?

It used to be a much simpler question. Thirty-six years ago, America learned about the stunning tragedy from a shaken Walter Cronkite on a fuzzy, black-and-white cathode-ray contraption with only a half-dozen channels on its dial. Today — last week — the news of JFK Jr.’s death was delivered by a very different device, a distant descendant of that boxy Philco that’s evolved in ways those watching back in November 1963 would never have imagined. Or believed. Or maybe desired.

The assassination of President Kennedy was television’s first great test as a nation-uniting medium. In urgent we-interrupt-this-program bul- letins — they must have seemed so breathtakingly modern then; they look so heartbreakingly old-fashioned now — TV made its maiden attempt at covering an unfolding disaster as it happened. Decades later, with the rise of round-the-clock cablecasting, almost all news is presented in what’s come to be called real time. More and more these days, the interruptions are the programming.

And yet, poignantly, there are some eerie similarities — some ghosts on the screen — in the way TV told us about these two inextricably connected calamities. For instance: Despite all that’s changed about television over the years — and all that’s changed about America — the death of the son turned out to be every bit as sad and shocking as the death of the father.

The first rumors began creeping into newsrooms very early Saturday morning, in those predawn hours when TV stations used to sign off with ”The Star-Spangled Banner” (back when TV stations actually did sign off). The details were sketchy: A single-engine Piper Saratoga airplane, owned and piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., carrying his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette, had disappeared over the ocean somewhere between New Jersey and Martha’s Vineyard.

NBC’s Robert Hager was the first to break the news on the air — at 8:05 a.m. — but within minutes, every cable news channel and most of the broadcast networks were consumed by the story. Even the usually sluggish CBS was on the job early, with Dan Rather beating both Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to the anchor chair. There wasn’t much news to report — we learned that Kennedy had purchased the plane two months ago; that they were flying to Cape Cod to attend cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding — but it didn’t matter. On every channel you could find the same aerial shots, videotaped by news choppers hovering over Coast Guard helicopters hovering over search-and-rescue boats. On most channels, not even commercials were permitted to intrude on the vigil.

MSNBC — the network that forged its identity with 24-hour coverage of Princess Di’s fatal car crash two years ago — kept the aerial footage rolling pretty much all day, with Brian Williams filling the airwaves with whatever came into his head (a discourse on the relative dangers of single-versus twin-engine airplanes, for example). On ABC, Jennings broke away from the chopper shots for a chat with his colleague Barbara Walters, who recalled her visit to the Kennedy compound years ago (the same compound where the missing pilot’s family was now huddled — and where armies of camera crews were peering with telescopic lenses). CNN’s Bernard Shaw interviewed CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who had known Kennedy when they were both in college (he went to Brown in Providence, she went to the University of Rhode Island in nearby Kingston). And on CBS, Rather choked up while reading the lyrics to ”Camelot.” Hard to imagine Cronkite making that choice, but at least Rather didn’t sing.

Newsroom decor has changed dramatically since the days of wood-paneled walls with lots of clocks, but confusion and misinformation in the midst of crisis apparently never go out of style. With so little fact to report, all sorts of rumors and speculation were flung at the screen — then carefully scraped off when proved erroneous. There was, for instance, the Second Pilot Theory, with early (false) reports that Kennedy’s flight instructor was also on board the plane. Later in the day there was much debate about weather conditions and how a summer haze hanging over the island might have been responsible for the accident.

Nobody suggested any Oliver Stone-type conspiracies, but some chilling coincidences were noted: Kennedy’s plane went down three years to the day after TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island, and exactly 30 years since Ted Kennedy’s car crash at Chappaquiddick killed Mary Jo Kopechne. There was also plenty of discussion about JFK Jr.’s capabilities as a pilot, a lot of it unfavorable.

For most of the day, commentators struggled to refer to the presumed victims in the present tense. But by late Saturday afternoon, when the Coast Guard started picking debris out of the water, Kennedy and his passengers began to slip into the past.

Among the items fished from the sea: an airplane headrest, some carpeting, and a suitcase with a luggage tag still attached. At first, officials wouldn’t say whose name was on that luggage — they wanted to notify family members before the press, they explained — but it didn’t take long to find out. Within hours, CNN aired a photograph of the bag, flecked with sand but clearly showing Lauren Bessette’s business card in the tag holder. It was a tough picture to take in, a little like that famous LIFE photo of President Kennedy’s bloody shirt. The difference was that LIFE ran its shot a full year after JFK’s death. TV didn’t wait a day.

Many of the proceedings were strangely, surprisingly familiar. The interviews with neighbors, the innumerable talking heads, the impromptu shrines of flowers and candles — it was as if the day were following a groove carved by so many televised tragedies before it. The press conferences in particular seemed like hollow rituals, revealing little that hadn’t already been leaked on the air. But there was one tense moment at a Pentagon briefing when an NBC correspondent asked whether the Coast Guard allocated the same extensive resources to private-plane crashes that don’t involve 38-year-old sons of slain Presidents. It may have been a tactless question. Or it may have been entirely appropriate. Either way, the answer was obvious.

Of course this particular crash received special attention, no matter how much the Coast Guard denied it, for precisely the same reason it was getting special attention from all those reporters frantically covering the story. Because John F. Kennedy Jr. wasn’t merely a celebrity, wasn’t merely the son of a President, wasn’t merely the ”Sexiest Man Alive” (according to PEOPLE magazine and pretty much every American citizen with two X chromosomes). He was also television’s First Child, a vacuum-tube baby whose custody was shared by an entire nation.

Like the star of his own real-life Truman Show, JFK Jr. was trailed by cameras and microphones from the day he was born (just weeks after his dad won the 1960 presidential election). Saluting his father’s coffin as a 3-year-old (in one of the most famous images of this century), failing his bar exams as a law student (”The Hunk Flunks,” announced the New York Post), dating movie stars (Sarah Jessica Parker, Daryl Hannah), and marrying Carolyn (he did manage to elude the cameras that time, but there were videos of the couple fighting in Central Park) — his entire life was lived in front of the entire world.

He was, in short, the purest form of celebrity ever distilled: enormously famous for being enormously famous. And nobody knew that better than he did. No doubt it was his inspiration for George, the glossy Cosmo-meets-Commentary political journal he started publishing four years ago (its first cover featured Cindy Crawford as a bosomy George Washington). ”Politics is not distinct from popular culture,” he explained on Meet the Press in 1997, promising his magazine would ”deal with politics the way many people deal with music, art, and sports.”

That nexus between politics and pop culture was territory Kennedy knew well (he once did a cameo on Murphy Brown, had a brief role in the 1985 indie flick Winners, and was said to have loved the JFK Jr. character on Seinfeld). And it was a clever premise for a magazine. Although George hasn’t earned any money so far — and now may not long survive its founder — it did give Kennedy an aura of gravity and independence he’d never achieved before. Many of the commentators covering his plane crash last weekend prophesied that had he lived, he might have ridden that aura all the way to the White House.

Now, of course, we will never know. Instead, television is burying its firstborn the only way it knows how. By the time the sun finally set on that sad Saturday in Martha’s Vineyard, Kennedy’s life in front of the camera — that is to say, his whole life — had been spliced into a funeral dirge of video clips that played hauntingly on the airwaves all night long. Watching it flicker on the screen, you could almost see — in real time — the man being hardened into myth, the myth being hammered into legend.

Like father, like son.

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