When it was announced yesterday that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor, the 24-hour news networks went into overdrive. CNN had wall-to-wall coverage of the announcement, including live statements from Kennedy’s choked-up Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisles. As the network provided background noise to my day, I noticed that the coverage was not of a man who was sick, but of one who was already dead. (Seriously, there were times yesterday when the CNN anchor reminded viewers that Kennedy is actually alive.) Ted Kennedy is attending his own funeral, which is taking place in the media spotlight.
The Post comes right out and says it on the front page: “TED IS DYING” blares the banner hed, with “Kennedy has brain cancer” underlined in red above. The Post does get sympathy points for referring to Kennedy’s upcoming battle as “brave,” but quickly returns to its sordid, sensational ways by including a file photo of the senator’s car at Chappaquiddick and using that 1969 car wreck controversy as part of the lead on the main story. (The gist: Kennedy has survived a plane crash, the Chappaquiddick incident and the assassination of his two brothers, but he’s now in the fight for his life.) The other Kennedy story concentrates on the specifics of the senator’s illness: explain what kind of brain tumor it is (malignant glioma), the treatment (chemotherapy and radiation, this kind of cancer is too insidious to operate on) and Kennedy’s spirits, (“good and full of energy,” according to a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Kennedy has been staying since Saturday). Accompanying the piece is a picture of Kennedy in his hospital room, smiling and surrounded by family.
The Daily News forgoes highlighting the more controversial aspects of Kennedy’s past and instead concentrates on the “FIGHT OF HIS LIFE,” devoting the entire front page to the news, complete with picture of Kennedy and his wife holding hands in the hospital. The two stories in the front of the paper deal with the details of the discovery of the tumor and a round-up of reaction to the news around Capitol Hill. Both papers include editorials that say pretty much the same thing: No matter how you feel about the man’s politics, you can admire all that he’s done in his tenure in public service (Kennedy has served the second-longest term in the Senate, behind Sen. Robert Byrd) and wish him well during this tough time.
If you look at the media coverage further up I-95, the Boston Herald announces, “WE’RE WITH YOU, TED” with a smiling photo of the senator. In the Bay State, this really is a “family” issue. Kennedy might as well be referred to as “Uncle Teddy” in some parts of Boston.
The coverage is reminiscent of when news of Patrick Swayze’s pancreatic cancer broke in March. The stories were incredibly obit-like. (For the record, two-plus months later, Swayze is still alive and kicking.) Granted, the grim prognosis for an elder statesman is more newsworthy than that of a B-list movie actor, but there still is that shock of “what a shame.”
The bigger narrative of when Kennedy shuffles off this mortal coil is the end of “Camelot,” that idyllic image of John, Bobby, Teddy and the rest of Kennedy clan playing touch football at the family’s Hyannisport compound, of Jackie Kennedy’s perfect pillbox hats and little JFK Jr. saluting his father’s casket as it rolls by. This is the end of an era in American politics and history, despite how many of the next generation of the family are in public service. Ted Kennedy is the last tie to Camelot and has been the family’s patriarch for 40 years. The nostalgia for that “simpler time” will come back full force. The flip side is that of the “Kennedy Curse,” which the Post alludes to in its coverage.
One thing is for certain: obituary writers have the grim task of updating Kennedy’s file, “just in case.” The “Camelot” pitches are probably flying around the newsroom.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 21, 2008