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