Ty Burr analyzes the frenzy as TV and print outlets raced to outdo each other

July 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

JFK Jr.: How well did the media cover the tragedy?

There are times I am surpassingly glad I work for a magazine that covers the entertainment industries. This past weekend was one.

If I worked for, say, Time or Newsweek or People, my coworkers and I would have been in the office all Saturday and Sunday, racing to fill a revamped issue with whatever coverage, photos, and essayistic thoughts we could pull together. Instead, I, like you, watched the networks and the news channels tap-dance for 72 solid hours as they tried to turn the disappearance of the plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister into a full-Di event.

It was awful enough that three lives were lost, but did the media really have to turn their fate into a show? Well, yes, of course; we don?t know how to do anything else. Personally, though, I was glad not to have been complicit, for once, in the helplessly avid packaging and selling of tragedy. The quickness with which the televised coverage, in the absence of hard news, caved in to maudlin film loops — the salute by the cortege, the paparazzi videos of Kennedy and Bessette — was ghoulish enough. Worse were the desperate interviews with anyone, apparently, who had ever served the couple coffee in their Tribeca neighborhood (as for the cretinous Howard Stern fans who got through by phone to Dan Rather and other news outlets, the less said, the better).

Watching this circus as a consumer rather than a provider was depressing, aggravating, sad. Speaking as someone who believes that life?s too short and random to believe in dynastic curses, and who thought of Kennedy as a guy who seemed to have turned out pretty okay given people?s desire to crown him prince regent — well, what I got from TV was both more (shallow sentimentality) and less (restrained updates) than I wanted.

Let?s be clear about something: By and large, we?re mourning the loss of our icon, not his life. This was a man who, until the past few years, was celebrated for who he was, not for what he did — and who he was was imposed upon him from the outside, by the culture?s need for domestic gods. I hate to say it, but would we have been quite so taken with JFK Jr. if he hadn?t been a hunk? If he?d looked like, I don?t know, Andrew Cuomo?

Of course not. Kennedy?s status as generational Adonis made him natural fodder for magazine covers that called him ”sexiest man alive” and for clever sitcoms that used him as a reference gag — made him, in fact, an image to be bartered in the pop marketplace. He himself understood that and cannily used his sex appeal to underwrite his magazine, George. He also understood the rules of the game well and playfully enough to leak the news that he and Bessette had split up — just before sneaking off to their very private wedding.

Ultimately, though, it was just that — a game — and one that is nullified by Kennedy?s death. He matters now only to those who knew him: his family, friends, coworkers, and the people for whom he did unsung charitable work. The rest of us can only look, with quizzical regret, at the hole where a pop plaything used to be.

You May Like