Columnist Cheers Cable News Wasn't Around for Chappaquiddick 'Media Bombardment'

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn is thrilled that the cable networks weren't around to force Ted Kennedy out in 1969. His headline? "How wall-to-wall Chappaquiddick would have changed history -- for the worse." Zorn began:  

Of course every network would have had special logos featuring bridges, water, wrecked cars or portraits of the main players. And each would have had a snappy title for their non-stop coverage:

"The Bridge Too Far," "Tragedy on the Vineyard," "Teddy in Trouble," "Camelot Submerged" and so on.

If we'd had insatiable 24/7 cable news networks in July 1969, the accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy drowned would likely have dominated the national consciousness for months.

Special programs every night devoted to nothing but pundits bickering over the depths of the 37-year-old Kennedy's responsibility for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, 28.

Town-hall-style chat shows every afternoon in which ordinary Americans issued their verdicts and sentences before the evidence was in.

Luckily – from Zorn’s viewpoint – the media picture then was much quieter.

"Politically, Kennedy wouldn't have survived that kind of media bombardment," said Bruce DuMont, president of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications and host of "Beyond the Beltway," a national weekly talk-radio show. "It wouldn't have just been a spotlight, it would have been a heat lamp. On him, on all the investigators, on everyone connected to the story.

The cable networks turned Scott and Laci Peterson into household names, DuMont said. "Just think what they would have done with Ted and Mary Jo. Remember all the coverage they gave to the [1999] plane crash that killed Jon F. Kennedy Jr.? Multiply that by 10."

Chappaquiddick was a big story anyway and badly damaged the reputation of the man then seen as the surviving prince and heir apparent of American politics.

But, as DuMont said, there were just three broadcast networks in 1969 offering half-hour newscasts that seldom dwelled for long on any one story. Technological limitations made live remote broadcasting very cumbersome.

"And most talk radio was local and fluffy" under fairness-doctrine restrictions, DuMont said. "So you didn't have nationally syndicated partisan hosts banging the drum day in and day out saying Kennedy had to go."

And perhaps therefore, he didn't go. The following year Massachusetts voters resoundingly re-elected him to the Senate. Though the Chappaquiddick scandal probably kept him out of the White House, it never cost him the seat he held until his death this week at age 77.

Left unconsidered by Zorn: Is it possible that we as a political culture have higher standards now for how politicians treat women? Bob Packwood must have thought it was odd that he would have to resign for sexual harassment, given that Kennedy lasted through leaving the scene of an accident and a drowning woman. Zorn thinks, like many liberals, that outrage over the loss of Kopechne would have cost America Kennedy’s greatness:

This thought experiment invites a question to which there is no nonpartisan answer: Was it just as well that we didn't -- couldn't -- have a media feeding frenzy over Chappaquiddick in 1969? Would the nation have been better off if Kennedy had been shamed into private life?

Or, as I believe, is the nation -- particularly our disabled and disadvantaged residents -- better off for the 40 years of service he was able to render after that terrible night?

The momentary satisfaction of destroying Ted Kennedy for his failings would have had a significant price. Something to keep in mind when the next fallen figure, Democrat or Republican, stumbles into the heat lamp.

Zorn didn’t ask if Republicans have to live up to much higher standards to avoid an end to your career. Larry Craig tapped a toe in a john, and networks like NBC pounded on him to quit, putting the story at the top of the news for days in a row. If holding Kennedy accountable for weeks is ridiculous, how does Zorn explain the feeding frenzy over Latrinegate?

[Hat tip: J. Seton Motley.]

Chicago Tribune Eric Zorn
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