This week's column examines the embargo the media, from left to right, slap on fact after death. They may think it's good manners (or good politics), but it's not only a disservice to readers and viewers, it's dangerous for democracy.
Something about the death of a famous liberal person turns the media into grieving widows whose dictum against speaking "ill" of the dead eliminates all sober analysis of the life in question. Once, death in the passing parade came to us, more or less, in "just-the-facts, ma'am" obituaries. Now, breaking, live and for the duration, a celebratory loop plays on about even the most mixed and controversial public lives.
Notice I said "mixed" and "controversial," restrained terminology to describe the life and times of Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose death triggered a media dump of Hallmark-curlicued tributes that all begin with "lion of the Senate" -- as though that were his official title -- and finish with "the end of Camelot," as though that were his actual residence, not the tagline of an ancient PR campaign.
Question: How does the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne -- whom the married, panicked and first-term Sen. Ted Kennedy left to drown in 7 feet of Chappaquiddick water -- apply to the "lion" from "Camelot"? Answer: It doesn't. Remember? Don't speak ill of the dead. Kennedy fixture Ted Sorensen's gloss in Time magazine is typical, depicting "the Chappaquiddick incident" as merely ending Kennedy's "bright prospects for still higher office."
The "Chappaquiddick incident" ended more than presidential prospects. It ended the life of a woman unlucky enough to have depended on Ted Kennedy. But it didn't end Kennedy's political career as it should have -- and would have any non-Kennedy's.
ABCNews.com, maybe more perversely still, paints Kopechne's death as the reason Kennedy became the "lion of the Senate" in the first place: "But oddly, the darkest moment in Kennedy's career ... ultimately transformed him into one of the most highly regarded politicians in Congress."
A dainty segue back to the "lion of the Senate," no? Remember: Don't speak ill of the dead -- and particularly "not at this time," which, in truth, describes a summer that has taken a toll on our celebrity class. From Michael Jackson to Walter Cronkite, deaths of the rich and famous have led the season's news as much as health care and town-hall meetings. Add Farrah Fawcett, Robert Novak, Don Hewitt, and now, Dominick Dunne (RIP), and it becomes clear that this was a summer in which death did not take a holiday. It also claimed Saudi billionaire and serial-libel tourist Khalid bin Mahfouz.
Not everyone gets the star treatment from the media -- in fact, Mahfouz, world-famous bane of the free press, didn't get an obituary. (This is likely due to media fear of being sued from the grave: Don't speak ill of the dead, or else.) But Michael Jackson was a cash cow the media milked for everything they could, ignoring -- that is, not speaking "ill" of -- Jackson's freakish life to elevate the pathetic, unsavory pop idol to national iconhood and reap maximum ratings.
In showering approval on Walter Cronkite, the media were showering approval on themselves, or at least on their notion of their own importance. Oh, and about the fact that Cronkite misreported the 1968 Tet Offensive as an American defeat? Don't speak -- you know the rest.
It's an old story by now. But there is so much the media consider "ill" in Kennedy's life -- thus, unmentionable -- that we are not getting a straight story. Besides the "Chappaquiddick incident," there were the decades of public debauchery. His political career was indeed at times momentous, but "controversial" is a mild word for it. The first legislation he managed as a U.S. senator, the 1965 Immigration Act, effectively tipped the immigrant pool of this nation from Europe to the Third World. His despicable and notorious slander of Judge Robert Bork not only spearheaded the assault on Bork's 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court, it opened the sewer gates to slime politics. We get scant consideration of such consequential facts. We get an emotional rush.
This would matter less if the man were quietly going to his rest. But Democrats have already seized on the Disneyfied Kennedy -- The Lion-Senator -- as the posthumous mascot of nationalized health care, and will be adding Kennedy's name to health-care legislation. This would make zero political sense if the media told the whole mixed and controversial truth. But they haven't marked the passing of a consequential scion of a power-wielding, privileged American family. They have showcased the debut of a cartoon superhero. The eyes and ears of democracy have failed us again.