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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

When Too Much is OK   

Some big stories merit saturation coverage.

Related reading:   Shifting Into Overdrive

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


OK, LETS STIPULATE there were plenty of things not to like about the latest media extravaganza.
Start with the ubiquitous "friends" of John F. Kennedy Jr. who tirelessly flogged their relationship with the fallen Camelot heir. It's hard to say which was more obnoxious. Was it the people who really did know him and couldn't stop telling us about it (like historian Douglas Brinkley, unforgettably tagged as the William Ginsburg of the saga by Slate's David Plotz)? Was it the people who--in the words of an acquaintance of mine who actually did know Kennedy--might have once shared a cab with him yet presented themselves as intimates? Or was it Mike Barnicle, the disgraced ex-Boston Globe columnist who seemed to be trying to ride his Kennedy connection back to the big time?
Then there was the fact that the story just wouldn't go away. The news media were dominated by the story long after it had played itself out.
That said, I think it's a mistake to simply dismiss the JFK Jr. story, as some have done, as yet another manifestation of the media's obsession with celebrity and sensation.
It was that, of course, but it was much more.
Full disclosure: I'm not and have never been a true believer when it comes to the Kennedys. But it's almost impossible to exaggerate the enormous hold of Camelot and the Kennedy mystique on this country.
JFK had been dead for three-and-a-half years when AJR Art Director Lissa Cronin was born. Yet after she heard that Saturday morning that his son's plane had vanished, she spent the rest of the weekend glued to the television.
She had plenty of company.
There are times, it seems to me, when excess coverage is appropriate. This was one of them.
Sure, the networks were obviously straining to fill airtime as the search progressed that weekend. But it almost reminded me of election night, when all you really want to know is the results, so you endure the headquarters parties.
The JFK Jr. saga is worlds away from the small-bore curiosities that do reflect much of the profession's worst instincts: JonBenet Ramsey (my candidate for the most ridiculously overcovered story since Reconstruction), Nancy and Tonya, Marv Albert. Get them all out of here, and all of their friends and relatives.
There was plenty to criticize in the coverage of Princess Diana's death and the Clinton/ Lewinsky story. But bracketing them with the likes of the Menendez brothers is just plain wrong.
Big stories merit big coverage. Real big. It's just that simple.
In recent years, since O.J. Simpson established the template for saturation coverage, there has been a pattern as immutable as the laws of gravity: wall-to-wall coverage forever, an avalanche of airtime and column inches, followed by intense bouts of media self-flagellation. For the most part, none of it seems to have had much effect on future behavior.
Even so, there's little doubt that seriously scrutinizing one's own performance is generally a good thing.
But you should only enter a guilty plea when you're, well, guilty.
The Dayton Daily News' Charles Stough, who writes the BONG Bull, an online newsletter for journalists, put the breast-beating in perspective.
"There will be school shootings, celebrity tragedies, natural disasters, political scandals," he wrote. "And we will cover them, sometimes bravely, because it's what the public needs to know.
"The profession does itself no justice by following up with mincing self-recrimination. Once, even if only once, we'd like to see a columnist say, `Yeah, we did it, and damn few people switched off!' "
There's no doubt that there's much to be concerned about in contemporary journalism. But there's much to be excited about, too. Responding quickly and thoroughly to major news events, and this was one, remains a vital part of what journalists do. (Check out Kelly Heyboer's excellent piece, starting on page 24, on how one branch of the media, the newsmagazines, did so.)
Let's reserve our outrage for the instances that most deserve it. Because those who view everything with alarm run the risk of ending up like the guy who cried Wolf Blitzer:
People stop listening.