It didn't take long for John Kennedy Jr.'s death to become fodder for the media's tragedy industry, shattering the records set by Princess Diana's demise.
But while the press shifted into wretched-excess mode, the New York Times never led the paper with the story--a decision displaying either remarkable restraint or cultural cluelessness.
"We avoided the end-of-the-world mega-headlines that characterized some newspapers and the kind of overwrought prose that characterized some copy," says Managing Editor Bill Keller. "I'm personally proud we didn't wallow in the 'Curse of the Kennedys' and 'America's Prince,' as if it were the death of a president.
"To make it the lead of the paper would signify a kind of importance to the event that wasn't really there." Still, Keller says, "we've second-guessed ourselves back and forth on that over the last few days."
No sooner had the shock of last weekend's plane crash worn off than the public was inundated by hype, blunders, death music and all manner of blabbermouths--few of whom knew Kennedy well--filling the great gaping maw of airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. With ratings up six- and seven-fold, there was no penalty for being maudlin. Over blurry, long-range shots of a Navy destroyer, correspondents mused about "the ocean's embrace," and how Kennedy and his wife "are now together for eternity," and "how much can this family take?"
But how much can viewers take? Are we entering a new era of celebrity deaths? Will there be a JFK Channel where he keeps dying forever?
In the first six days, says the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts ran 27 percent more stories on Kennedy's death (131 pieces) than they did during the first week of Diana's passing. And the major newsmagazines--"Dateline," "60 Minutes," "20/20," "48 Hours"--devoted a staggering seven hours and 51 minutes to the subject.
Mistakes, meanwhile, were made. MSNBC reported--many hours before it happened--that Kennedy's body had been recovered from the plane wreckage and brought aboard a Navy ship. An MSNBC anchor attributed the account to "a senior government official," while acknowledging confusion that the Associated Press had just retracted a similar account.
The AP bulletin moved at 1:47 p.m. and was corrected 32 minutes later. AP Managing Editor Jonathan Wolman says one of his reporters got bad information from an official involved in the Navy effort, while another had a "miscommunication" with a Kennedy family spokesman who appeared to be confirming the account. "We shouldn't have used it in the first place," Wolman says.
The larger question is whether the media have greatly inflated this story as a Camelot melodrama or are merely catering to the public's grief. Whatever the verdict, nearly everyone--even those who are nauseated by the over-coverage--is still talking about the tragedy.
Footnote: George magazine staffers, who have refused to speak publicly about their friend, got a second shock two days after the death when an emissary from publisher Hachette Filipacchi told them to put out only the next two issues--which sounded like they would be the last.
The Candor Question
The George W. Bush campaign's recent dismissal of a top campaign spokesman highlighted a troubling question: Just how helpful--or devious--can professional publicists be in dealing with reporters?
One reason that David Beckwith got the boot was that he guided reporters to write that Bush had raised more than $20 million--angering the press when the Texas governor announced the real figure, $36 million, the next day. "I tried to steer them in the right direction," he said in a July 1 interview, while admitting that he was also playing the "expectations" game.
Chris Ullman, a spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission, says he sympathizes with Beckwith. "So-and-so gets a scoop that's partly right, partly wrong and you're stuck in this nether world: How much do I confirm?" he says. "My inclination is to help if possible."
Terry Eastland, a former Justice Department spokesman, says that guiding a reporter, "especially if he's going in a wildly divergent direction, that's a good thing. But the last thing you want to do is create an appearance that's at odds with what the final story is going to be. That can defeat your credibility."
Competitive journalists rarely wait for the official announcement of anything. In the case of Beckwith, whom the campaign viewed as too friendly with the Beltway press, reporters were calling him for a 24-hour jump on the Bush financial report. And Beckwith's "more than $20 million" was, well, technically accurate.
What usually unfolds is a delicate dance between scribe and source. "I understand you're going to do X and Y," the reporter says. "I'd be careful about that if I were you," the spokesman says. "Which part, the X or the Y?" "You're okay on X, but I wouldn't get too far out front on the other part." Out of these bigger-than-a-breadbox, protect-me-on-this discussions are news stories born.
Ullman recalls reporters for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times calling him in June to say they had learned that the SEC was in settlement talks with Bear Stearns over alleged securities violations, and that the proposed penalty was around $10 million.
The agency never publicly confirms ongoing investigations. But with "Bear Stearns in a major spin mode," Ullman says, he helped ensure that the newspapers reported the figure under discussion as "more than $10 million." Days later, Bear Stearns announced that it would pay $25 million to settle the probe.
But juggling the needs of the boss and the media can be dangerous. Charles Bakaly, Kenneth Starr's spokesman, came under investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly being too helpful to the press on the independent counsel's probe.
The media often discriminate against women--even after they die.
That's the finding of a Northern Illinois University study of obituaries in four major newspapers. Men receive significantly more obits, and with the exception of the Miami Herald, their obits are longer and accompanied by more photographs.
The greatest offender, says the study, is the New York Times, where 88 percent of the obits were for men--even when controlling for death rates. The figure was 81 percent at the Los Angeles Times, 76 percent at the Herald and 71 percent at the Chicago Tribune. Each paper was examined over a 30-day period in 1997.
As for pictures, 59 percent of the New York Times obits for men had them, compared with 6 percent for women. "Despite women's inroads into paid labor," the study says, they are receiving far fewer Times obits than in 1977.
Co-author Robin Moremen calls the Times approach "atrocious." She adds that a former Tribune editor once told her that no one wanted to read about "women who stayed home and baked cookies."
"These women who are dying now in the '90s were homemakers" in the 1940s and '50s, she says. "They didn't have anything written about them, except maybe their volunteer work. The work they do is important, but it doesn't register as an economic blip."
New York Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli says the situation reflects "society as a whole. Historically speaking, men traditionally held higher positions than women, which is reflected in news obituaries. As the situation continues to change, you will see more and more women in the obits."
Come-On of the Week
"Our writer gets supernaked for Playboy"--Jane magazine in its "sex-obsessed issue."