SOLOMON: A Media Prince Dies, and Some Faux Tears Flow
By the time searchers found the body of John F. Kennedy Jr., countless journalists had already identified him as a profound symbol of the nation. "Now America Can Bury Its Fallen Favorite Son," declared the top headline on Time magazine's web site. Such pronouncements were all over the news, foisting a glut of hyped-up mythology on media consumers.In the print edition of America's biggest news weekly, Time essayist Roger Rosenblatt helped to amplify the prevailing noise in the national media echo chamber. "When a Kennedy smiles, the country smiles back, whether it wants to or not," he wrote. "When a Kennedy dies, the country weeps, sometimes without being aware of it."This kind of blather has become so ubiquitous that it's apt to seem like a literal matter of fact. Media-fueled grief exploded in the hours and days after news broke that the plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. was missing. Like thousands of other commentators, Rosenblatt simply added his words to the media crescendo while claiming to describe public sentiment. "America, the country of young hopes, lost something of itself last weekend," he asserted, "and we will deal with it as best we can."Pundits were quick to proclaim a transcendent national tragedy. No one can doubt that major news coverage was warranted in the wake of the accident, which killed the 38-year-old pilot, his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren Bessette. But what we got was outsized, overblown coverage, with routine exaggeration that often turned into absurd fabrication of public mourning.Around the country, when the news broke, television reporters dashed out to streets, malls and parks, searching for grief. Naturally, they found some. The death of a person so early in life is very sad, and the death of President Kennedy's son certainly was a terrible blow to an extended family that has suffered many human losses. But for a broad cross-section of Americans, this was hardly the enormous national tragedy announced by news media.Many people expressed sadness that the young man's life had been cut short. With no lack of media prompting, quite a few recalled the image of three-year-old John saluting his father's casket in late November 1963. But after the plane crash, just about the only mass grief in evidence was to be found in America's newsrooms and broadcast outlets. On television, anchors and correspondents often seemed like professional actors reading from melodramatic scripts with choked-up voices.Maybe the sorrow among Americans would have been deeper and more genuine if Kennedy had done much of social value. Yes, like many other rich and famous people, he dabbled in charitable work, giving a boost to some low-income youngsters with scholarships and other educational aid. "He helped sponsor an innovative program to assist kids at risk," Newsweek reported.But John F. Kennedy Jr. never came to terms with a crucial point that Martin Luther King Jr. made long ago: "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."During his all-too-short life, Kennedy devoted no appreciable energy to restructuring the social edifice which continues to produce widespread poverty and other forms of routine injustice. If he had actively sought basic structural transformations -- challenging the massive corporate power that widens the huge gaps between rich and poor -- perhaps he would have antagonized some powerful media institutions.Instead, his main achievement was the slick monthly George, which he founded and ran during the last few years of his life. After the tragic plane accident, Newsweek described it as a magazine that "explored the star-spangled intersection of politics, celebrity and pop culture" -- an overly polite way to characterize a glossy magazine that has promoted glitz in place of substance while covering American politics.No doubt, John F. Kennedy Jr. did kind things for some individuals. And his early death was a sad event. But if that death is as historically significant as the news media keep telling us it is, then we may as well get the story straight. To whatever extent he was America's prince, we've been bowing in the wrong direction.