There may be no specific date on which the Roman Empire fell, but the final gasp of broadcast journalism occurred over the last couple of weeks of mawkish, obsequious, and completely unprofessional coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law. Individuals once known as journalists morphed into alien life forms I'll call the Television People. The Television People gave us their version of Woodstock '99. It was a massive encounter group for these aging and made-up Baby Boomers who decided to work out their frustration over the mythical Camelot that never was and now, with the death of "the heir," can never be. Mislabeled "breaking news" revealed how broken the news has become. The Television People stopped the world, but they didn't want to get off. Writing in The New York Times, Caryn James observed: "With this death television has not served the useful function of communal mourning so much as it has provided communal mind control and illusion.... Mr. Kennedy (and by extension his dutifully mentioned wife and sister-in-law) were canvases on which reporters, historians, and long-lost college classmates imposed what they wanted to believe." On CNN, one of the Television People narrated film of a young John Jr. playing on a beach, rhapsodizing about "the boy who so loved the ocean that one day he would be part of it." Later, Candy Crowley babbled: "Summer should never be the final season of life." Checking the obituary page would have shown Ms. Crowley that death takes no vacation, one of the few clichés I didn't hear during the past week. A once-proud profession has become all tabloid, all the time. A profession mostly respected in the past, which once informed, now titillates. The most outrageous untruths and inaccuracies are tolerated, even promoted, so long as they ratify the favored myth, whether it's Camelot or liberalism. NBC's Tom Brokaw, who knows what real journalism looks like but feels the pull of the Television People, said: "I think many people in my generation believe that [the Kennedys] would define our lives in terms of accomplishments and achievement and triumph." Get a real life, Tom. From another of the Television People, Diana Olick on CBS News, we learned: "It is a testament to their unquestioning love of these waters that this family can continue to find peace in a sea that has stolen so much from them." The Television People (CNBC's Chris Matthews excepted) mostly excused Clinton's false statement that he hosted JFK Jr.'s first return visit to the White House. The decline of broadcast journalism began in the late '60s when I worked for NBC News. The advertising department, which had been mostly kept out of the news division during the tenure of NBC President Robert Kintner and his predecessor, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, was allowed in. Ratings for news started to matter, as they did for entertainment. Stories were increasingly selected for the type of audience they would bring, especially women. The ratings declined anyway, along with the respect most people once had for the journalism profession. Add to story imbalance what many correctly perceive to be an ideological tilt to the left and you know why increasing numbers of people are looking elsewhere for real news. The tragedy for the Kennedy and Bessette families is compounded by the Television People who shamelessly exploited the event for their own purposes, while hypocritically claiming a more noble intent. The Television People stupidly conveyed their faith that Mr. Kennedy might have gone into politics, as if that is the only profession worthy of a Kennedy. This handsome young man apparently didn't want to play their games. In what may have been the only realistic network portrayal of Kennedy, CNN's Jeanne Moos showed JFK Jr. as a real person full of self-deprecating humor and a true sense of self unrelated to how the Television People measure worth. Some said the music died when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper went down in a small plane 40 years ago. For sure broadcast journalism died last week. It has been replaced by the Television People.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate