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From the media, a tragic sense of deja vu

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

John F. Kennedy Jr. may have carved out a niche as a new breed of Kennedy who eschewed the family calling and published the first "post-partisan" magazine of politics. But it was up to the older journalistic and political hands to bring context and gravity to news of his missing plane yesterday.

In the sometimes frantic, sometimes thoughtful wall-to-wall television coverage that pre-empted network programming in Boston yesterday, veteran Kennedy watchers from Mike Wallace to Doris Kearns Goodwin fleshed out latest chapter in the tragic history of America's star-crossed political dynasty.

And as a kind of grim family linkage, file footage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s famous salute to his father's passing casket in 1963 filled the airwaves, as did references to Kennedy as "John John," a nickname that emanated from the "Camelot" days of his father's prematurely terminated presidency.

In his role as special correspondent to WCVB-TV (Ch. 5), longtime political observer Clark Booth called the Kennedys a "family like no other in American history" and said news of the downed plane was "the stuff of fiction not fact." On WBZ-TV (Ch. 4) veteran political correspondent John Henning -- citing everything from the assassination of President Kennedy to the skiing accident that claimed Michael Kennedy -- said that every time the family tries to recover from such a tragedy, "somebody throws another thunderbolt at them."

Speaking on CBS from Martha's Vineyard, a clearly distraught Wallace lent a sense of history to the events by recalling warm conversations he'd once had with Richard Nixon about President Kennedy, who defeated Nixon in the very bitter 1960 election. In an interview with MSNBC's Brian Williams that aired on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7), historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounted a poignant conversation with matriarch Rose Kennedy. Even given the extent of her family's turmoil, Goodwin noted, Kennedy was sure that her children and grandchildren "would still choose to be who they were because of the adventure, the excitement and the hugeness of the lives they led."

The gravity of yesterday's news was apparent early in the morning when CBS anchor Dan Rather -- who gained fame as the young reporter who frantically reported word of Kennedy's November 1963 death in Dallas -- somberly noted that "tragedy just seems to follow this family."

By early afternoon, two of NBC's heaviest hitters, anchor Tom Brokaw and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, were trying to fit John F. Kennedy Jr.'s life into the family history. Noting that the young Kennedy had already been approached to run for governor, senator and mayor of New York, Russert said that "those closest to him believed that ultimately, he would find his way back to public service."

But reminiscing about the Kennedy legacy -- and thus justifying the extensive coverage -- proved the easy part of television's task yesterday. The more difficult challenge was sorting out and making sense of the fragmentary and unverified information filtering in in the hours before the fate of Kennedy's plane became clear.

There were numerous stories -- including the presence of a flight instructor on board -- that were reported and later corrected during the day. There was considerable confusion over the possibility of a locator beacon being activated. Shortly after noon, when Channel 7 was reporting an active five-state search, Channel 5 was saying that the search for the plane was confined largely to the Martha's Vineyard area. At around 12:30, Channel 7 aired a CNN report that plane debris had been spotted near the Vineyard only to note a few minutes later that the debris had actually sighted near Long Island.

The media's ravenous appetite for instant information in a crisis situation was painfully obvious to viewers who watched beleaguered Kennedy spokesman Brian O'Connor field questions from anxious reporters not long after noon. "I'm sorry, I don't have much to add," he said, in response to the barrage of queries. "There's just so little information right now." At the Pentagon briefing that began shortly thereafter, a spokesman told eager journalists that "I must remind you that first reports are [often] wrong."

But as the afternoon dragged on and reports surfaced of luggage and debris being connected to the downed plane, a sense of resignation began emerging on the airwaves.

"As time goes by, the situation grows more grim," declared Channel 5's Heather Kahn from the studio. "This has turned into a watch now, almost a death watch at the compound," intoned Henning from the Kennedy compound.

Perhaps the most ironic note of the day was struck by Russert, who explained how John F. Kennedy Jr. hated the idea of the Kennedy family "curse" and particularly disdained the "notion of wall-to-wall media coverage."

"Now suddenly [he's] the focus of all this media attention" on "a Kennedy curse."

Mark Jurkowitz is the Globe's media critic.


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