Jewish World Review July 23, 1999 /10 Av, 5759
BOTH IN 1997 AND IN 1999, the tragic death of a young public figure has set off an
unbelievable amount of media coverage, around the clock, day after day. Then it was the death
of Princess Diana and this year the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr.
It is understandable that seeing the lives of such attractive and popular young
people suddenly cut short in a wholly unexpected way would have a widespread impact. For
their families, it must be devastating and our hearts naturally go out to them.
But, when all is said and done, the kind of media coverage their deaths have received
has been comparable to the kind of coverage given the assassination of a president, who is,
after all, a major international figure whose acts directly affect the lives of hundreds of
millions of people around the world-- and, potentially, everyone's life in a nuclear age.
Neither Princess Diana nor John F. Kennedy, Jr. had that kind of power or responsibility.
That young Kennedy was a likable and decent human being is attested to not only by
those who fawn over the Kennedy family, but even by such a critic of the Kennedys as Rush
Limbaugh. Whether this young man should or should not have flown the plane when he did is
something that need not be hashed out now, so soon after the raw fact of his death. Nor can
we ever know what his potential might have been had he lived.
In short, what is there to say that has required saying over and over, on channel
after channel and day after day?
This is not an argument for forgetting. His family will never forget him. Nor do the
rest of us forget our loved ones. I have shed tears over members of my family who died
decades ago. These are things you never really get over. The most you can do is move on.
But this intense family grief is very different from media exploitation. If anything,
a media extravaganza can only add to that grief.
What is more disturbing than the media's actions is that these actions would not have
been taken, or continued, if there was not a public willingness or eagerness to watch and
become part of an emotional orgy. Nor is this wholly explainable by the individual or family
fame of people like Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr.
In between their deaths, we had a national emotional orgy over the killing of 15
people at Columbine High School. That too was milked for all it was worth by the media -- and
by a public primed for emotional self-indulgence.
Here again, there is no question that these deaths of so many young people were
shocking and newsworthy. Nor is there any question that their families deserved everyone's
sympathy. But media events in the wake of these killings months ago were still going on when
young Kennedy's plane was first reported missing.
What is more disturbing -- indeed, frightening -- is the possibility that years of
dumbed-down education and debased popular culture have left us in a mental condition where
unbridled emotional responses are all we have left. Perspective, logic, self-discipline --
these things seem to have faded away.
What is truly scary is how dangerous it is in a democracy to have an easily
emotionalized populace. Many of the unprecedented mass horrors of the twentieth century were
the work of charismatic political leaders who knew how to manipulate people's emotions.
Lenin, Hitler and Mao each cost millions of people's lives and debased and dehumanized
millions of others, who were in their merciless power because of these leaders' mastery of
the power of words and emotions.
Yet this bitter and traumatic history is largely lost to today's generation of
Americans. Neither our schools nor our elite colleges make history a top priority. There are
Ivy League universities where you can get a college degree -- or even a Ph.D .-- without
knowing anything about history.
If there is anything worse than living through the horrors of this century once, it
is needlessly living through them again because our national memory has been erased and
replaced by "exciting" fads. A gullible people cannot indefinitely remain a free people.
That is the real danger that is far worse than going overboard about particular
individuals. Our extravagant emotionalizing is just a symptom of that larger
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©1999, Creators Syndicate