When word came that John F. Kennedy Jr. was lost, and presumably dead, at sea, even those Washington Post readers whose knees automatically jerk in opposition to anything that prominently features Democrats or Kennedys would agree that the fate of "John-John" was front-page news. On Day One. Or Day Two. But even Kennedy fans and Democrats would be hard pressed to justify the round-the-clock news coverage that TV imposed upon the nation. They'd probably even question The Post's decision to run nine stories last Sunday and seven on Monday, and to make it a Page 1 story and the Style story throughout the days since Kennedy crashed his plane off Martha's Vineyard. The phrase "get a grip" comes to mind.
And yet President Clinton, a baby boomer whose commitment to public service apparently was cemented when he shook President Kennedy's hand long ago, managed to capture what a lot of Americans still feel when he explained why the federal government expended so much time and personnel in recovering the bodies of Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law. "Because of the role of the Kennedy family in our national lives and because of the enormous losses that they have sustained in our lifetimes" -- because of this, John, more than his passengers, was front-page news.
The Kennedy story -- even in its excesses -- was an easy, if too typical, Page 1 call. It had so many ingredients that today's newsroom executives have been weaned on: dynasty, glamour, beautiful people, wealth, politics, the publishing world, the fashion world, themes both biblical and Shakespearean, ties to Washington and to New York City. JFK Jr. was the son of an assassinated president, the nephew of an assassinated presidential candidate, the nephew of a senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy. And he was "John-John," as the press dubbed the cute toddler who brought light and laughter to "Camelot," as the mythmakers -- including journalists -- christened the JFK presidency. Connection to "John-John" marks baby boomers who run the news operations these days and led to the hyperbole-laden Sunday story that proclaimed "Across Nation, a Sense of Loss and Disbelief." By Thursday, a Style story pointed out that younger Americans are, to borrow the words of the headline, "Missing the Camelot Connection."
While Post editors new to their roles nevertheless have knees jerking in predicable fashion, and reporters are taking their cues from them, these questions loom: Isn't it time to rethink this automatic-pilot response to news of a celebrity's -- a political celebrity's -- date with fate? Whom is The Post writing for anyway?
In addition to that story, readers from whom I'm hearing are still debating those editors' decisions to bring to the July 8 front page a trend (perhaps) of oral sex as the practice of choice among middle-school kids in a relatively wealthy Arlington area.
"With editors' judgment such as [this], we have more to worry about than Y2K!" a reader said. The headline "Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex" riled more than the story itself. Various readers noted, with good reason, that the article was more alarmist than need be, that it did not make the case for a trend in the making, that it was written by a reporter whose son had attended the school in question and was thus not disinterested. And others are still wondering about that top-of-the-page front-page story on Thomas Derrick Ross, the 24-year-old who may now be renouncing his thug's life. Readers I've heard from aren't buying this. "I realize that you place human interest stories on the front page to sell papers to people who otherwise would get their news at the checkout counter. Give it up -- they don't read newspapers anyway, and meanwhile you will lose the faithful readers you have, those who still get their news from you, not TV or radio," said one reader.
I'll keep this conversation going next week. You can reach me at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.