A 38-year-old magazine editor from a prominent family is missing and presumed dead in a plane crash. Tragic, but not so important, really, in the grand scheme. The media drop almost everything else to cover the story. The rest of the world and the human condition are overshadowed for a week as officials search for bodies and the cause of the accident. Why?
Good pictures. Old and new.
The disappearance and death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister nine days ago were perfectly suited to the visual narrative technique and story-of-the-week nature of TV-dominated journalism today--and to history tomorrow. This story had everything--beautiful people, the suspense of the search. And what Hollywood would call an irresistible "back story": generations of myth and martyrdom, all available in readily accessible pictures, moving and still.
Words, although there were plenty of those last week, were needed primarily for transition or a bit of explanation between the footage. Kennedy news becomes supply-side history, as the visual archives open wide once again. The family's visual record is astonishing--Jack on his PT boat, John Jr. under the desk, those blurry seconds in Dallas. The salute. They magnify and multiply with each retelling and new viewing. We have seen the images so many times before, embedded, deeper and deeper, in the American psyche.
It all depends on the visuals. If such technology had been available earlier, more Americans might remember the life of, say, John C. Fremont, a dashing Frenchman of illegitimate birth who was one of California's first senators, a daring explorer and best-selling writer. He was the first Republican candidate for president and nearly won. But that was 1856, and photography was rare.
Four years later, though, photography was more widespread, and cheaper too. There were more pictures of the Republican Party's next candidate, Abraham Lincoln. We can visualize the man and the causes he championed, which raises a question: Would our admiration be any less if he had governed in the pre-camera ages?
Name recognition was obviously a factor in the marathon coverage of the latest Kennedy chapter--the idea that this young Kennedy was family, America's son. But that is not enough to carry seven days of around-the-clock and around-the-dial television coverage. Most important were the film and pictures that networks and other news operations already had on digital file.
From the day he was born, 56 days before his father was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States, John Jr. was filmed and photographed by the press, the government and his family. We have all that, images as familiar as family snapshots, most famously the Oval Office photograph of him at the age of 2 crawling out from under his father's big desk and on his third birthday, saluting the American flag draped over his father's coffin.
The very availability of so much fascinating footage, including generations of home movies of the kind rich people took before the rest of us, was the fuel of media speeding. But far more important, the massive coverage itself became a part of our shared experience and collective memory--the stuff of history.
It may be cruel or old-fashioned to say this, but despite all the journalism--the first rough draft of history--the tragedy of this promising and engaging young man will hardly be a footnote in written history. That is, if popular history is still a written thing in the future, which I doubt.
Last week's coverage was more than just another triumph of the visual. It was a glimpse of the future of history, one that looks like A&E's "Biography." Basically, I think mass or popular history will be based on the images preserved on film, video or in new technologies that will store a thousand pictures on the head of a pin. How we see ourselves will depend not on what we are formally taught or made to read, but on what we see or what we can be shown.
More often than not, images tend to make news into a shorthand of icons, but they also have the power to resurrect the denied or the suppressed, as with images of Vietnam.
Or Waco, Tex. In most of the endless mainstream journalistic analyses of the Clinton years, there is rarely a mention of the 1993 government attack on the Branch Davidian compound. It might be better if that one just went away. But it won't. The pictures are too powerful. And I would bet that a decade from now, Americans will be asking how this could happen. Without pictures, the fiery deaths of more than 80 religious cult members would fade into the mists of time along with other embarrassments like the two-day race war in Tulsa in 1921, when mobs burned down one of the most prosperous black enclaves in the country. Historians now believe that nearly 300 people may have died during the riots. But because the visual record is thin, we cannot conjure up the event in our minds' eye. Such potentially historic episodes are broadcast only by chance--the chance that an obsessive writer or filmmaker makes us pay attention. That's rare.
I began thinking about all this a few years ago while working on a documentary chronicling one of the great movements of American history, the story of the Oregon Trail. More than 300,000 Americans, and foreigners too, went west across the plains and over the mountains for land and gold in Oregon and California in the 1840s and '50s. Many of them recorded their travels in magnificent journals and letters now in the collections of museums and libraries.
But there were almost no pictures.
By the time of the Civil War in 1861, however, photography was more common. One result: One hundred and thirty years later, filmmakers Ken and Ric Burns were able to combine soldiers' journals and letters with early photos to create a compelling visual history. I sometimes think that in the future, American history, picture-dependent, will begin with Lincoln and the Civil War. It is hard to do a solid nonfiction film about the Revolutionary War--or a visually powerful TV documentary of the critical presidency of James K. Polk--when there is not much of a visual archive to draw upon.
The Kennedys were ahead of their time in understanding the power of the visual. John Jr.'s grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, learned promotion and what we now call "marketing" in the 1930s when he controlled a movie studio. What he promoted was his family. His son the president did the same with his children--almost always without the blessings of his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy.
While the first lady was away on a Mediterranean cruise, the president telephoned a friend at Look magazine, Laura Berquist and said, "This is it. . . ."
"It" was the chance for the magazine (and the future) to get pictures for a photo essay suggested by Kennedy himself. Berquist wrote the text for the 16-page Look spread, titled "The President and His Son," with photos by Kennedy favorite Stanley Tretick. One was the shot of John Jr. under his daddy's desk. How many people saw that photo how many times this past week? Millions upon millions. We will see it and others again and again. So will our children and their children. That is the new history.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist, author of "President Kennedy: Profile of Power" (Touchstone) and a consultant for CBS News.