By Neal Gabler
A paper by Neal Gabler, former Joan Shorenstein Fellow (Fall 2011), author and film critic, examines the quantity and nature of media coverage of Edward Kennedy over the course of his political career.
Gabler analyzed press coverage of Edward M. Kennedy in newspapers, newsmagazines, broadcast news programs and tabloids. He compared the coverage Kennedy received to other politicians, and reviewed the nature of the coverage – whether it emphasized policy, politics or personal matters. Gabler documented in detail the coverage of four noteworthy episodes in Kennedy’s life: his first run for the Senate and election in 1962; the car accident at Chappaquiddick Island in 1969; his run for the Democratic presidential nomination against incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1979-1980; and the incident in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1991. Gabler found in the media’s treatment of Kennedy patterns that characterize recent shifts in the priorities and practices of U.S. political media.
The influence of the media is by now a very, very old and very, very oft-told story. Scholars have written extensively about media proclivities and biases, especially in the political realm where these things may actually affect our lives. But the issue of media influence is usually explored within a relatively limited context — an election or a legislative campaign or a scandalous episode. It is rarely examined over the course of a public figure’s entire life to determine if the same forces that operate in chapters also operate through an entire book. Or put another way, we know how the media shape individual elections and particular public attitudes. But how do they shape the public perception of a person not just at a single point in time but at several points in time and over a longer course of time?
The life of Edward Kennedy provides an especially apt, perhaps unique, opportunity to answer this question for a host of reasons. There is, of course, the longevity. He served in the Senate for nearly 47 years, which gives a considerable timeline to anyone wanting to see how the media reported upon or even helped create the ups and downs, the flows and ebbs of his life. More, Kennedy was almost continuously in the public and media eye…
The media culture had changed since Kennedy first entered office. It had become increasingly informal, increasingly unbridled, increasingly critical (if only incrementally so), increasingly impertinent (Would anyone have asked FDR or Eisenhower or even Russell Long, who did have a drinking problem, whether he was an alcoholic?), increasingly dramatic and even melodramatic, increasingly personal, and increasingly intimate — in short, increasingly all the things that the old respectable press had prided itself on not being. It had sidled away from “just the facts” and gotten closer to shaping those facts…
Kennedy, like all politicians, was a Prometheus, bound by journalistic narratives he was largely powerless to affect, eaten away by rumor, gossip and innuendo that often weren’t true, and left to hope that the journalistic gods might rescue him, which sometimes they deigned to do.