50 Years of Shame: How Journalists Protected Ted Kennedy After Chappaquiddick

Thursday marks 50 years since Ted Kennedy, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and left Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in the back seat. For decades, journalists and the TV networks downplayed the incident and portrayed the senator as the victim.  

Despite the circumstances, New York Times correspondent James Reston’s initial coverage in 1969 framed the story as  a "Kennedy family" tragedy, rather than as a tragedy for the Kopechne family. As the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell and Tim Graham explained in a 2015 column

Reston’s first draft on Chappaquiddick began “Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family.” The actual victim was submerged in paragraph four. Luckily, the Times edited it to put the actual victim in the lede. When Kennedy spoke to the nation with his dishonest narrative about what happened, Reston was oozing again, that Teddy was a “tragic ‘profile in courage.’”    

On July 18, 1989, NBC Nightly News journalists Andrea Mitchell and Mary Alice Williams used the 20th anniversary less to reflect on Kennedy's wrongdoing and more to tout how the Senator was “winning respect.” 

 

 

MARY ALICE WILLIAMS, substitute anchor: It was 20 years ago tonight that a car swerved off a small bridge on Chappaquiddick Island off Massachusetts’s coast, and Chappaquiddick gave its name to a turning point in our political life. The car sank in the shallow water, and a young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was drowned. The driver, a young senator named Edward Kennedy, survived. But it changed his life and possibly ended his dream of becoming President. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tonight on how Ted Kennedy is winning respect, 20 years later.

TED KENNEDY: On the issue of refugees and asylum, I yield to no one in my commitment in that area!

ANDREA MITCHELL: In reforming the immigration law last week, Ted Kennedy was updating rules he first legislated in 1965. It’s that kind of nuts-and-bolts work that has earned him the respect of colleagues – even conservatives.

Mitchell concluded:  

He inherited the advantage of family and wealth, and the tragic destiny of being the only surviving male, the last Kennedy of his generation able to seek the White House. It’s an expectation that lasted, despite Chappaquiddick.

(Mitchell’s affinity for Kennedy is well known. When the Democrat died in 2009, she mourned, “The heavens were weeping for Teddy Kennedy today.” Almost a year later, on August 20, 2010, she wondered what his current stances on issues would be if “we were blessed by his presence.”)

New York Times reporter Adam Clymer in 1999 dismissed Chappaquiddick in the gushing bio he wrote about Teddy: “His achievements as a Senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.” 

One of the most galling examples of media revisionism came from journalist Charles Pierce in the January 5, 2003 Boston Globe magazine profile of Kennedy. Though he warned that Kennedy lost his “moral credibility” to be president, the mostly sympathetic profile cheered the Democrat’s work to vastly expand the welfare state. Pierce infamously wrote: 

If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age. 

How far did liberal journalists go in order to explain away Chappaquiddick? In this shocking quote (selected by the Media Research Center as the worst quote of 2009), Discover magazine's Melissa Lafsky wrote a piece for the Huffington Post suggesting that Kopechne might see her death as a necessary sacrifice: 

Mary Jo wasn’t a right-wing talking point or a negative campaign slogan....We don’t know how much Kennedy was affected by her death, or what she’d have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history....[One wonders what] Mary Jo Kopechne would have had to say about Ted’s death, and what she’d have thought of the life and career that are being (rightfully) heralded. Who knows — maybe she’d feel it was worth it

On a base, transactional level, View co-host Joy Behar explained why liberals like her did not abandon Kennedy. On the January 5, 2016 episode, she explained that the Democratic agenda matters more than the life of Kopechne. 

 

 

Chappaquiddick. I mean, a girl drowns and he abandons her and she drowned and women still voted for Teddy Kennedy. Why? Because he voted for women's rights. That's why. That's the bottom line of it in my opinion. I mean, I don't like either one of them, to tell you the truth, Teddy or Bill [Clinton]. They're both dogs as far as I'm concerned. But I still will vote for Bill Clinton because he votes in my favor.

On the 40th anniversary of Chappaquiddick in 2009, with Kennedy already ill with brain cancer, the broadcast networks ignored the ugly incident. But the July 27, 2009 Newsweek hailed Kennedy as a man whose name “will never slip unremembered into the mists of history.” Chappaquiddick, it seems, was just a blip for the liberal legislator: 

Kennedy's life is more compelling, and more instructive, if it is seen not as the inevitable unfolding of the destiny of a man devoted to public service but as the story of a search for redemption

It wasn’t until the rise of the #MeToo movement (years after the death of Kennedy), that Hollywood, of all places, began to investigate the accident and Kennedy waiting 10 hours to report it. At last, the 2018 film Chappaquiddick provided an unvarnished look at Kennedy’s actions. Generally networks journalists love political dramas. But not this movie. It was largely ignored by the morning shows. On April 5, 2018, Today co-host Savannah Guthrie grilled one of the film’s stars with liberal complaints. She attacked it as a “fictionalized” “disservice.” 

As journalists rightfully expose Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and other men accused of horrible crimes, perhaps they should look back at how they minimized and explained away the death of poor Mary Jo Kopechne. 

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