By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—The voice on my phone tape was unmistakably young, and carried an undertone of panic. The caller said she’d heard from someone in New York that I knew John F. Kennedy Jr., and so could I possibly—please?—go on her cable-TV network that afternoon to talk about the tragic disappearance of his plane?
Befuddlement set in. Not only had I never met the son of the late president, but I couldn’t imagine how my name could be even loosely thrown about as someone who may have rubbed elbows with the handsome prince of tabloid dreams.
Was it because I’d worked as a journalist in New York, where the papers dutifully chronicled JFK Jr.‘s life and loves? Or because I knew prosecutors at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where Kennedy once had worked? It couldn’t possibly be my journalistic association with his uncle Ted, since even that consists—as it does for hundreds of others in the news business—of trailing the Massachusetts senator around Capitol Hill when he is in the thick of some legislative maneuver.
Well, maybe it had something to do with growing up in Boston, having a liberal political outlook and being Catholic—attributes, after all, that only a few million potential Kennedy family “experts’’ can claim. In truth, the closest I’ve ever come to Hyannisport was on a tourist boat that plied the waters off Cape Cod, the guide pointing out the beachfront that runs along the Kennedys’ iconic summer home.
No, I was sorry to tell the young producer when I belatedly returned her call, I didn’t know JFK Jr. Like most everyone else in July 1999, I merely watched in stunned sadness as yet another Kennedy family tragedy unfolded before us.
The odd exchange comes fresh to mind now because another summer has descended into delirious coverage of a made-for-tabloid-TV story. The arrest of a suspect in the decade-old murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey has rejuvenated the Roman circus of cable coverage—just when the infotainment industry had bored itself covering the apparently less titillating war in the Middle East.
They’re back—all back: the legal “experts,’’ most of whom have seen precisely none of the evidence compiled by the police, the district attorney’s office or the Thai authorities who picked up John Mark Karr; the shrinks who specialize in plumbing the darkness of the criminal mind, though none have probed Karr’s; the DNA specialists who admit they don’t know if Karr’s DNA sample matches the biological evidence found at the girl’s murder scene—but if it does, of course, then the case against him is a slam-dunk.
American journalism always has had a taste for the sensational—the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the over-the-top coverage of it predated the coming of cable by decades. But the loose standard for news that marks the era of cable television has no precedent.
Cable news organizations, unlike the broadcast networks, are faced with feeding the beast of round-the-clock airtime. But short of natural disasters and plane crashes, little genuine “news’’ breaks out 24 hours a day. So airtime is filled with an endless lineup of questionable commentators with limited claim on hard information. Thus did my name somehow turn up as a potential JFK Jr. acquaintance. After all, there seemed to be only six degrees of separation between us, when really there were about 6 million.
It is impossible for viewers to determine which “experts’’ are experts and which are peddlers of uninformed bunk who go on television because the appearances provide free advertising for lawyers, private eyes, psychiatric consultants, jury experts and others who might gain from some association with a high-profile crime. Not a few of these types wrongly convicted John and Patsy Ramsey of their daughter’s murder a decade ago, just as they concluded in 2001 that Gary Condit, then a member of Congress, must have been complicit in the murder of Chandra Levy, an intern with whom he’d had an affair. Levy apparently was the victim of a random assault.
Cable news routinely transforms local crimes into national crises—convincing a fair number of people that there really are terrible scourges afoot in which pregnant women such as Laci Peterson are brutally murdered, and teenagers on graduation trips disappear. The transformation of news into voyeuristic spectacle is a distraction from societal and political rot that isn’t given similar seriousness of coverage. And this will, one day when the circus is over, catch up with us.