Remembering John F. Kennedy Jr.

There are those who make history; those who watch from the sidelines; and those who shape the record of how that history will be remembered.  For 20+ years I was fortunate enough to be one of those who shaped the retelling of history.  It’s on this 20th anniversary of the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. that I remember with clarity how that day began and ended.

Like any other Sunday, I made my way in the blackness of the early morning hours, down the West Side Highway, to Black Rock, then headquarters of CBS Radio.  It was 3:00 am as I headed in for what would be one of the longest, most anxious-filled shifts of my career.  His plane is missing – I heard the headline as I parked the car on Sixth Avenue.

John Kennedy Jr.
John Mathew Smith & from Laurel Maryland, USA

Every anchor, reporter, writer and producer then in the newsroom was of an age when we remembered the dreams of a generation, the belief in Camelot, the triumphs and tragedies of The Kennedys.  While we hoped this would be a triumph over tragedy, we each knew in our gut that the odds were not on his side – not that night, this morning, not that plane, this Kennedy.

Yet, you put your anxiety and doubts aside and you do what true journalists do…you work the story.  You report “around” the story in the absence of confirmation or until the facts are vetted, confirmed and reconfirmed.  We didn’t have to worry about tweets twenty years ago.  No one was jumping this headline until we were sure.

So, I made those 4:00 am calls that no one wants to make and fewer want to receive. Those calls to relatives and friends hoping their cherished son, cousin, friend, colleague, prince survived a crash into the chilly, dark abyss of the Atlantic Ocean.

The producer tells me to track down the Kennedy’s longtime governess.  I remind him it’s 4:00 am!

“Do you think she’s sleeping?”  He asks rhetorically.

My eyes tell him no one is sleeping this Sunday morning.  I delay the inevitable as if calling her at 6:00 am or 4:00 would make a difference in her reaction to the news.  Grief is grief no matter what time it strikes, no matter whether it’s Park Avenue or the Lower East Side, no matter whether it’s the loss of a beloved son or the adopted son of a nation.

So, you make the calls.  You do the interviews.  You cut the tape and you get through the day.  After twelve hours of non-stop rushing adrenaline, gulping bad coffee and cutting tape (yes, we weren’t digital 20 years ago), your replacement shows up.  He’s a kid without a journalism degree at the bastion of journalism nicknamed The Tiffany Network.  He didn’t even bother to grab a newspaper on the way in or listen to WCBS…where he worked!

“Why are all the suits here?  It’s Sunday,” he says nonchalantly.

Seriously, this is who was taking over journalism.  There was no historical perspective, no understanding of the enormity of the scope of the loss, should it be a loss.

I wanted to stay.  True reporters never really leave the newsroom on a breaking story.

The Vice President of News, a rare sighting on a Sunday morning in July, begged me to stay.  Even he knew this story couldn’t develop in the hands of a kid without historical perspective.

This was my awakening, the realization that journalism was in serious trouble as we headed into a new millenium.  No longer would there be a deep understanding in a global or historical sense.

Today, journalism has devolved into a medium where everything is instant, where even experienced journalists…and politicians…knee-jerk tweets rather than fact-check and engage in intelligent discussion and probing.

It makes you wonder…what would John F. Kennedy Jr. think of journalism today.