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In saturation coverage, some see rare common focus for society

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 07/23/99

After some point in every mega-story, journalists themselves become the center of attention. In the last few days, much of the conversation about the Kennedy-Bessette tragedy has focused on the issue of media overkill.

There was Victoria Block of WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) almost apologizing on air for the hordes of reporters swarming on the scene. Larry King fretted about it on his CNN talk show. And yesterday's long local TV vigil of the USS Briscoe at sea bordered on the bizarre, even as the networks cut away after only about an hour of coverage broadcast nationwide.

Few would argue that the Kennedy story - like the death of Diana, princess of Wales, the Littleton shootings, and the O.J. Simpson trial - generated a full-blown media frenzy. ''If we had to define late 20th-century electronic media in one word, I'd say `overkill' would do it,'' said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

But at a time when American society seems increasingly fragmented, some observers say the media glare on events such as Kennedy's death or Littleton serve as a kind of national hearth where frayed bonds of community are at least temporarily restored by a common focus on a traumatic event.

''Americans are desperate for unifying forces in society,'' said David Popenoe, a sociology professor at Rutgers University. ''I was saying the other day that I think we need royalty back. This guy [Kennedy], I think, is as close as you can get to American royalty.''

Psychologist and Harvard Medical School faculty member William Pollack concurred that the media's treatment of the Kennedy story brought people together, serving as ''a large emotional journalistic holding environment.''

''I think journalists are responding to a natural need and feeling,'' he added. ''Most people feel so fragmented in their own tragedies, their own communities.'' So the Kennedy tragedy ''becomes symbolic of something greater ... . It's the symbol of one family's struggle, of a sense of community that most people don't have.''

''I think there is something else at work here that has a value people are overlooking,'' said Thompson. Blanket coverage of events like the Kennedy story harks back to the pre-cable television era when three dominant networks spread common values and information, he said. ''Overkill, in a strange way, has brought this back to us ... We've got this history-less generation who cannot get away now from a series of minidocumentaries.''

In the case of the Simpson trial, Thompson asserted, the lesson was the legal system. In the scandal involving Monica S. Lewinsky, the subject was constitutional issues. And Kennedy's death resurrected the story of the Camelot White House and Cold War America.

''I think in many ways, that may be the greatest legacy JFK Jr. will leave,'' he said. ''The legacy of that family has been put back in the popular culture hopper.''

Other cultural and media analysts concur that saturation coverage of a story like the Kennedy tragedy can unite Americans. But they don't necessarily view that as healthy.

''We are drawn together, but we are drawn together with a melodramatic tabloid culture,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. ''We're being held togther psychologically by a series of crimes, accidents, and celebrity melodramas ... . I don't think it stitches us together the way `I Love Lucy' did in the '50s.''

Kohut said that in a new Pew survey, 76 percent of Americans identified reducing crime as a top national priority even as violent crime is at its lowest point in a quarter century. He attributes at least some of that excessive fear to the media's full court press on the Littleton massacre.

''I think we definitely come together in a case like this over grief,'' said Jon Katz, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment scholar. ''The question is whether that's a healthy way to come together.''

Katz said the treatment of Kennedy's death has distorted the reality of his life, creating ''an icon who has been elevated past his real place in the culture. It's very unifying, but it's also distorting, as it was with Princess Diana.'' In both cases, Katz said, media attention was driven by ''the glamour factor instead of the news factor ... . We have to be careful about what we are rewarding.''

Larry McGill, research director for the Media Studies Center, said the mega-stories may create an antimedia backlash. He pointed to a survey this year in which 53 percent of the respondents said the news media has too much freedom - a figure that's up 15 percent since 1997.

''I think you can relate that to what people have seen unfold in the past two years,'' he said, referring not only to several highly publicized journalistic scandals, but the perceived overkill on Diana's accident and the Clinton sex scandal.

Asked whether the news media created - or simply fed - the public interest in Kennedy's death, McGill said, ''We've been creating it for 38 years. We're kind of closing the circle now.''

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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