15 years, one day and a world ago today

A friend of mine pointed out that today is the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash.

Actually, as I later found out, it’s not. The plane crashed July 16, 1999, though the news was reported the next day, a Saturday.

I remember that day well, not because I was a fan of JFK Jr. or any of the Kennedys, but because I’m a media geek (but you knew that), and the unrelated events of this day demonstrate that my life is indeed powered by irony.

July 17, 1999 started really early. Mrs. Presteblog had scheduled a trip to Guatemala to visit where she served in the Peace Corps in the late 1980s. So in those halcyon pre-child days, we (that is, she and I and our two dogs, who are key to this story) stayed the night before her flight at a hotel near Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. This morning, before 5 a.m., we got up and I took her to the airport, with the dogs staying in the car for the hour or so before her flight left.

(When she flew, I always stayed at the airport until her plane left, not for any morbid reasons, but because there was one flight to Detroit when her plane left the terminal, got to the taxiway, and then turned around and came back to the terminal. The stated reason for the plane delay was bad weather; the actual reason was a slowdown by workers at the Detroit airport.)

The plane left on time, and I went back to the car to head home. On my car was a note harshly criticizing me for leaving the dogs in the car, and how badly we were treating our “poor babbies.”

I am well aware of how hot car interiors can become in the sun. Those last three words are key, however, because the car was parked in the middle of an underground parking garage on a cloudy day at 6 a.m., when the air temperature was maybe 70. There was a phone number left on the note; I thought about calling the number, but that may not have been the phone number of the note-writer, and besides that anything I had to say for explanation probably would have flown right over the writer’s head.

So I drove back home, stopping around 6:45 a.m. at the Cracker Barrel in Menomonee Falls, a great place for old-fashioned breakfasts. On the way, I was listening to WTMJ radio, which then and now has news in the morning. I’m not even sure why I was listening because there is little of actual news taking place on weekend mornings. This particular morning, Gordon Hinkley, who had worked for WTMJ for approximately the entire existence of the radio station, if not of radio itself, was doing the weekend morning news. And as I pulled into the Cracker Barrel he mentioned that a small plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. was overdue at the airport into which he was supposed to fly the previous night.

These were, remember, the pre-smartphone days. Had something like this occurred today, all of us smartphone owners who cared about the news would probably be intently surfing the Web looking for news. I had a cellphone. It placed and received phone calls, and that was it. (I don’t think I could even program cute ringtones with my first cellphone.) So I ate breakfast (probably country fried steak and eggs), read the newspaper, and drove back home.

The rest of the day was consumed on TV by, you guessed it, the breaking news of the plane crash.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was famous for exactly two things — being the son of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and for what he did at his father’s funeral.

I had one, and exactly one, affinity with JFK Jr. (OK, two: We both married gorgeous blondes.) At the time, I was the editor of Marketplace Magazine, and JFK Jr. started a magazine, George, that tried to be for politics what Rolling Stone was for music or GQ was for pretentious men with too much disposable income.

Later, I became the publisher and editor of Marketplace. And the same thing happened to both George and Marketplace, though at least the founder and publisher/editor of Marketplace didn’t die in the process.

At one point, ABC-TV’s Peter Jennings announced that sports events supposed to be carried on ABC were moving to ESPN2 “while we are engaged in something in which the whole country is emotionally engaged in some way or other at some time or other.” OK, it was Major League Soccer, so that was no great loss, but the coverage was the very height (or depth, if you like) of Baby Boomer self-indulgence.

John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was covered — more like smothered — because of his famous parents, who reminded such TV anchors as Jennings, CBS’ Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw of their younger days, and the supposed Camelot of the Kennedy presidency. (That includes President Bill Clinton, who reminded those reporters of JFK, even though the “bimbo eruptions” were of a lower class than JFK’s extramarital dalliances.) Various JFK experts were brought on to pontificate on someone who was 3 years old when his father died, so they were really talking about JFK’s father, who had died 36 years earlier.

The media doesn’t usually cover crashes of small planes in which three people die to the extent of the JFK Jr. smotherage. The media should have been embarrassed to overcover the event, but I have yet to see anyone else in the 15 years since then ask what the media was thinking when it devoted an entire day of airtime and who knows how much money to the death of someone famous merely because he was famous.

The coverage, though, was not as stupid as the “documentary” on YouTube that suggests that JFK Jr. was murdered by George W. Bush. Really.



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