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JFK Jr.: Media Magnet or Media Magnate?

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  • Full Coverage: John F. Kennedy Jr.

  • In George, Room for All Kinds Of Views (July 19)

  • From Media Magnet to Media Magnate (July 18)

  • Kennedy Launches Magazine

  • Monday, July 19, 1999

    As the president and editor of a three-year-old magazine about politics and culture, John F. Kennedy Jr. has had the unique role of being a publisher who was also a top subject of mainstream media, including tabloids.

    Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz discussed Kennedy's unique role in the growing world of celebrity journalism on Monday. The transcript follows: Good afternoon, Howard, and welcome. The Kennedy family has always been subject to a great deal of revisionist history. Do you think this will extend to JFK Jr. as well, in terms of his abilities and accomplishments as a journalist and magazine publisher? Do you think he will be given credit for having a more profound effect on journalism than evidence suggests?

    Howard Kurtz: I think the deification of JFK Jr. has already begun. He was a genuinely nice guy who created a reasonably interesting magazine, but he was not a figure of major accomplishment. That has gotten lost in this amazing explosion of coverage of his death and what the US News cover calls the Kennedy Curse.

    Arlington, Va.: Howard:

    Isn't it possible that people speculate about the chances he would run for public office far more in his passing than if he were alive? I think his failure to run for public office is as much as anything else, proof that he was smarter than people thought.

    Howard Kurtz: JFK did ruminate with a few friends about the possibility of running for office one day. But now people are free to speculate about what he might bave been elected to and how far he could have gone, which, of course, we'll never know.

    Bethesda, Md.: Was JFK Jr.'s magazine "George" his attempt to get away from "celebrity" journalism and turn his attention wholly to politics? And was he testing the climate for his own eventual leap into the political arena? Will "George" be able to go on without him?

    Montvale, N.J.: Do you think "George" will survive? What do you think of the magazine? A lot of people have been asking this question. With new negotiations starting with Hachette Filipachi over the fate of the magazine, its future appears to be more in question now than ever. Or is it possible that another publisher would pick it up?

    Howard Kurtz: George is an interesting but flawed magazine, in my view. It's never quite jelled in its attempt to cover politics as entertainment, though it's done some interesting things and had a lot of beautiful women on the cover. I wouldn't bet the mortgage on it surviving, though it's certainly possible that Hatchette Filipachi or another publisher will continue it. But George's ads had really declined.

    Berkeley, Calif.: Don't you think that the wall-to-wall media coverage is a little too much, especially considering his minimal accomplishments?

    What do you think about the New York Times' coverage on JFK -not making it lede story for two days-? While other papers throughout the world made it lede.

    Why isn't the media presenting an alternative, negative view of the accident like the British tabloids, such as "Kennedy recklessly killed his wife and sister-in-law-?

    Do you think that network anchors should disclose their personal friendships with Kennedy on the air? CNN's Christiane Amanpour, a personal friend of JFK Jr. since college, went on Larry King Live Saturday night and spoke about that friendship. Do you think that was a good way to handle the issue?

    Howard Kurtz: Look, judged by ordinary news standards, this wall-to-wall coverage is wildly out of proportion. But this is about an emotional connection to the Kennedy family, the memories that so many have of watching the president's kid grow up. When I go to the grocery store or call my mother, it's all anyone's talking about.

    Also, I don't think the question of Kennedy's ability as a pilot has been ignored. But it's hard to attack him for that when he's just died.

    Hegewisch, Ill.: Do you have any idea how some media bigshot like Dan Rather can keep letting "experts" on the air who flap their gums for awhile and then turn out to be Howard Stern groupies? Is CBS – or CNN, etc. – so hard up to beat everybody else that they don't even verify who their guests are before putting them on?

    Howard Kurtz: A lot of strange things happen on live TV.

    Vienna, Va.: Do you think you succumbed to the fawning coverage and media overkill of the Kennedy story when you mentioned that Kennedy had sent you a personal note after you wrote a story for George? After all, don't writers usually hear back from their editors?

    Howard Kurtz: I was simply trying to make the point, as others have more eloquently, that this was a remarkably normal and down-to-earth guy, given the celebrity bubble that has surrounded him his whole life. It was neither fawning nor non-fawning, just a brief personal experience.

    Fairfax, Va.: Howard,
    Are we to expect more conspiracy theories as a result of this tragedy?

    Howard Kurtz: God, I hope not.

    Alexandria, Va.: What is the ratio of coverage between JFK Jr.'s death and the soldiers just killed in Kosovo? Does the coverage ratio appropriately match the importance and merit of the events?

    Howard Kurtz: Again, you can't measure the JFK story by ordinary news standards. The Kosovo deaths might have been a bigger deal if they had been ambushed instead of dying in an accident. But obviously it would have gotten more attention if not for Kennedy.

    Arlington: Hasn't the news media gone totally overboard with overcoverage of this story? On Saturday, when they really didn't know much, the networks all stayed on the air all day long telling us they didn't know much. Why not just update us when something new came along? It's yet another example of the celebrity-obsessed, tabloidization of the news. CNN ought to be ashamed of itself with the 'round-the-clock coverage of this story to the total exclusion of all else. Surely there are other things happening in the world.

    Howard Kurtz: Actually, on a summer weekend, not that much else is happening. But CNN, MSNBC and Fox (and, in this case, ABC, CBS and NBC) have all succumbed to a Big Story mentality where you go all out, wall to wall, on big soap opera stories (Diana, O.J., Monica, etc.) That's the same reason that Time, Newsweek and US News all ripped up their issues (literally, in the case of the 2 million US News copies already printed) to dive into the JFK story.

    Bucyrus, Ohio: Do you think that a little bit of the reason JFK Jr. started this magazine was to stop questions about him running for any office? Showing he wanted to work in journalism.

    Howard Kurtz: My amateur psychology sense is that he wasn't ready to run for office and wanted to do something different that was still related to politics.

    Essex, Md.: The Washington Post, as well as most other big papers, ran headlines about JFK Jr. that ran across the entire top of the front page. I happened to be in New York over the weekend and noticed the New York Times had a more restrained approach: it was on the front page but not in the "lead" position on the top right and not all the way across the top. JFK Jr lived in New York so it seems like the Times, if anyone, had license to make a big deal of the story. Their decision seemed like remarkably good judgment given that JFK Jr., while interesting, was not a figure of great consequence. Do you agree?

    Howard Kurtz: The NY Times always shows more restraint on dramatic stories that have consumed the rest of the world. The Times also plays to a more elite audience (10 percent of those in NY read the Times, compared to 50 percent in DC area for the Post). The Times is right if judged by historical standards, but seemed to me to be a bit out of it in the sense that this is the only story anyone's talking about. What do you think of the way both this story and the death of Princess Diana have been covered? Is there really such a demand for wall-to-wall reports, or is the nature of 24-hour news coverage such that this automatically becomes the way that big stories are dealt with?

    Howard Kurtz: I thought Diana was unbelievable overkill, and in a few days I may think that of the Kennedy tragedy as well. But if people weren't watching, you can be sure the networks would switch to something else.

    Morgantown, W.Va.: My sense of grief over this tragedy is compounded by the coverage. It's too much. Not that the networks shouldn't do it. I turned it off when I couldn't take it any more.

    I think the constant rehash of the Kennedy curse is overdone and really not appropriate. Jackie's death was sad but not a tragedy...people get old and sick and die. She had a wonderful life. Rather than a curse, it seems John Jr. may have been reckless by flying at night and the Kennedys are not above physics.

    What do you think?

    Howard Kurtz: Anyone's free to turn off the coverage at any time, which I've certainly done as it's become so repetitive. But it hit many people in the stomach precisely because Kennedy was young and his death so unexpected, in contrast to that of his mother.

    Herndon, Va.: Reporters have been calling the Bessette family (and perhaps the Kennedy family as well) for comment and reaction to the events of the weekend. Does this strike you as too intrusive? Where would you draw the line between the public's clamor for every shred of information and a family's right to privacy after such a devastating event?

    Howard Kurtz: Yes, the media are overly intrusive at times like this. But no one is forced to talk to us, and Kennedy's real friends and colleagues at George haven't.

    Alexandria, Va.: Isn't the "only story anyone's talking about" a media creation? All networks go wall-to-wall JFK, Jr., so even if Beijing went to war with Taiwan, we couldn't hear about it.

    Emotional impact aside, can you imagine anyone, excepting perhaps a sitting president, getting this kind of coverage? Presidential candidate, governor and presidential son George W. Bush could have been in a crash, but would there have been this kind of overcoverage?

    Howard Kurtz: I don't think the media are somehow pummeling people or convincing them this is a big story, as one could certainly argue on the endless Lewinsky saga. Millions of people are genuinely interested in this tragedy.

    Edwardsville, Ill.: What qualifies you, or any other member of the vast left-wing media, to knock celebrity journalism? Celebrity journalism seems a helluva lot more honest than the propaganda journalism dispensed by you and others in the mainstream media.

    Howard Kurtz: I categorically deny being a member of the vast left-wing media conspiracy.

    Baltimore, Md.: What are your feelings on the coverage found on the cable news networks? It seems to me that they set a record for reporting the same information and broadcasting the same file footage over and over. Also, on MSNBC there was a constant tagline referring to their coverage as "Breaking News." It may have been breaking news on Saturday morning, but by Sunday afternoon, when the tagline was still being used, there was nothing "breaking" about it. In fact, if anything, they were repeating the same information ad nauseum. That's not my definition of breaking news.

    Howard Kurtz: The cable coverage has been unbelievably repetitive, particularly once it was clear there was no chance for survival. "Breaking News" logos are basically an attention-getting device.

    Washington, D.C.: Do you think that this tragedy will lead the media to hound Caroline and her children, invading her privacy, much as JFK Jr. and Princess Di had been hounded?

    Howard Kurtz: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg is one person who hasn't been hounded by the media. When was the last time you saw her interviewed or a picture of her that she didn't want taken?

    Michellville, Md.: What is a "figure of consequence" and when are one's accomplishments deserving of media treatment, in your view?

    Howard Kurtz: The truth is, the media focus not only on important people but on people who are famous for a variety of reasons. You'll recall that Mother Teresa's death got a fraction of the coverage of the Diana tragedy a couple of weeks earlier. If a U.S. senator (not Ted) was killed in a plane crash, it wouldn't get as much attention as the death of, say, Barbra Streisand or Tom Hanks or Nicole Kidman.

    Vancouver, BC: Can you comment on the media's use of myths – such as the Kennedy myth – to establish a bond with audiences?

    Howard Kurtz: That's an interesting point. The media love myths and legends. It provides a dramatic narrative, a shorthand way of telling a story. And sure, it's an attempt to tap into the public emotion surrounding a family like the Kennedys.

    Washington, D.C. : What do you think of the way this story has been covered on the Internet? I was AOL the other day and couldn't believe some of the conspiracy theories and truly mean things people were saying about JFK Jr. and the Kennedy family. Do you think the saturation of news coverage on certain big stories prompts people to react so quickly and so viciously?

    Howard Kurtz: It's unfortunate that people on the Net are using this tragedy to recycle their latest conspiracy theories. But that's the nature of unfettered communication in cyberspace--some fascinating, some disturbing, some off the wall. People online have to take this stuff with a grain of salt.

    Afraid I have to get back to work now. THANKS FOR THE MANY PROVOCATIVE QUESTIONS!
    Howard Kurtz Thanks to everyone who joined us today.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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