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Sunday, August 1, 1999

Three Funerals and a Wedding
The Sensationalizing of John Kennedy's Death

by Clinton Fein

On a hazy Friday evening, a plane piloted by John Kennedy, carrying his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren Besette, disappeared on the way to a family wedding at the Kennedy family's compound in Hyannisport, on Martha's Vineyard. John Kennedy was the son of former President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis. The plane was later found approximately seven miles offshore, about a hundred and ten feet deep, in the Atlantic Ocean. All three aboard were dead. Rory Kennedy, daughter to former Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel - and first cousin to John - cancelled her wedding. The victims were buried at sea.

We were doomed the moment word of the plane crash hit the wires. The media response was predictable enough, but things were just a little different this time. The media had learnt from Princess Diana and a diabetic-coma-inducing glut of sentimentalism was repackaged and replayed before the bodies had even been found or retrieved from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The press' ability to zoom in on tragedy, and focus on and manipulate our grief has been turned into an art form.

The usually irreverent Don Imus earned his true MSNBC colors by at last reverting to phone updates from MSNBC's queen of tragedy, Chris Jansing who sat - as she claimed - respectfully, on a directors chair monitoring every movement at Hyannisport, Massachusetts, the location of the Kennedy family compound, informing the world that, indeed, the family was understandably upset. We can now expect an Imus Live from Columbine special broadcast on the anniversary of the school shooting spree in Littleton, Colorado that successfully deflected the cameras from the ethnic cleansing and collateral damage in Kosovo.

The plagiarizing George-Carlin-wannabe, Mike Barnicle who ensured that the world knew that he was friends with John Kennedy, in addition to a slew of others, saw fit to pontificate as to how appalled John Kennedy would have been at the invasion of privacy demonstrated by the conversion of press on Martha's Vineyard, as he gave interviews to those very cameras, and called in his opinion at any given opportunity. Brian Williams, the MSNBC news anchor covering the memorial service for Kennedy and his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy at the Church of St. Thomas More in Manhattan mentioned how respectful the media were being, as the camera zoomed in on the deliberately-closed door to the church from which they had been expressly forbidden. The Kennedy and Bessette families made no distinction as to which news organizations were forbidden. The National Enquirer and CNN were categorized together, appropriately, as the savagely invasive entities they both are.

Of course the sea-chasing earlier that week of the Navy vessel, the USS Briscoe, that allowed the families to commit their lost loved ones to the sea away from the prying eyes of the cameras and microphones, was respectful as well, and of course the necessity of the Coast Guard to enforce a security radius around the carrier had nothing to do with it. And naturally, the over-made-up NBC correspondent Nora O'Donnell's pouty-lipped privacy invasion at the memorial service for Kennedy sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette in Connecticut was too, respectable.

As long as annoy.com remains a publication that examines the media, and criticizes their responses, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge from the outset that in so doing, we are as guilty or as responsible for feeding from and exploiting in the very manner in which we are accusing. Our hypocrisy is clearly on display here, and we cannot pretend to be any better than anyone else is. Just a little more honest, perhaps.

Our discussion of the media and the political influences that shape our communications structures, leave us no choice but to engage in a discussion of the very content that we are criticizing the media for exploiting. We are forced to listen, read, see and look, and thus forced to respond.

I watch MSNBC and CNN as a means of self-inflicted torture. I love to hate the very media that can and does reach me more often than I seek it. And as publisher and editor of a media entity that shapes journalistic freedom at the highest levels in the land, I recognize that we are as much a part of the media we despise, and must thus shoulder a certain amount of responsibility. In the examination of the media, the ultimate irony here, is that they did not support us in establishing the constitutional right to annoy. Especially, given the delivery of their coverage.

At one point during the exhaustive coverage of the pre-Manhattan-memorial-service at the Church of St. Thomas More, MSNBC's Brian Williams commented on how a foreign journalist making a noise with a microphone failed to appreciate the solemnity of the occasion, once again remarking on how respectable their coverage was. As much as Williams' hypocrisy and self-delusion as to the respectability of the media organization's coverage is necessary to point out, I am sure that he and many journalists like him, are reasonably decent people with fundamentally good intentions. I don't watch him and think "there's someone intrinsically evil who wants to harm mankind." Similarly with Don Imus, or CNN's Judy Woodruff or any of the thousands of media workhorses churning out sensationalist garbage cloaked in sentimentality and false piety. Yet their refusal to recognize or acknowledge the invasion of privacy, the lack of respect and the sensational delivery of "news" by the outlets they work for and on whose behalf they directly participate, indicates either a wilful ignorance or denial resulting from a lack of introspection, or, worse and more probable, a tacit complicity that is shaped by revenue rather than any journalistic or moral principle.

Venomous New York Times columnist, William Safire, was extraordinarily quick to point out how John Kennedy's demise was a result of a lack of judgement - a failure to calculate the risk and exercise appropriate responsibility. Ending his column, he wrote, " The icon-busting Book of Job teaches that God does not micromanage the universe, and that free-willed human beings are responsible for actions and injustices." Perhaps then, we might see Mr Safire take responsibility for, or at least entertain the notion that, the very reason Kennedy saw fit to fly on his own was possibly to escape the lack of judgement and respect an the hands of the press that hounded him like they did Diana, before they killed her. Don't count on it. If nothing else Safire got paid for his Kennedy article unless one is to assume his commentary was an exercise in altruism.

Any family facing a death is entitled to a certain amount of privacy, even a family that has benefited by media attention, if not craftily capitalized on it. And certainly one such as the Bessette family that hadn't. John Kennedy was smart enough to realize that in a celebrity culture created by the media, he was capable of exploiting and able to define it using his own voice. Through the creation of his magazine, George, which was by no means particularly remarkable, he was able to exploit his own celebrity and was willing to accept that privacy at this juncture, and for this reason, was likely to be compromised. What better way to seize control of the very mechanism feeding off you than to feed from it yourself? That is what is admirable, rather than the success or failure of George as a revenue-producing publication, judged solely by advertising pages and subscriptions. An entity emerged as a voice for and of someone who finally had some say in the way things were presented and the way he saw them rather than serve as a poster boy for the misinterpretations of others who felt they owned him and could speak for him. It's not as if he had a choice regarding his privacy. He did have a choice regarding his expression, and he used it wisely.

The media feeds on people and we in turn feed on the media in a perpetual cycle that becomes more addictive and detrimental to us by the day. Should the media be held accountable for the tragedy that results from the invasion of privacy, or are we as consumers as much responsible? We can never really expect anything else until - most unlikely- the intentions of the media focus on the betterment of mankind rather than the pursuit of revenue. If there's anything to be gained or learnt from the deaths of three people and the cancellation of a wedding, it's to question the lengths to which these families were forced to go to preserve an iota of privacy in the saddest and most difficult of moments. And to recognize, unfortunately, that privacy of this nature is a privilege for only those wealthy enough to afford it. The Navy ship USS Briscoe that relied upon the U.S. Coast Guard to keep the media boats at bay and the reliance upon the military to deter intrusion by helicopters and planes to shield the family from the glare of the media's unyielding lenses is a harbinger of the war to come between the always-precarious First Amendment and the much-eroded right to privacy.


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