Coverage of the death of Edward Kennedy got me thinking about one of the trickiest issues faced by journalists.
No human being is perfect. Even great men are flawed. Ted Kennedy is a case study for that statement.
So, if it’s your job to summarize Ted Kennedy’s life for a news story, how do you handle the flaws.
For example, the lead Associated Press story chosen by The Monroe Evening News for Wedneday’s front page waited until the sixth paragraph to mention Chappaquiddick, the tragic site of a woman’s death in 1969 that forever tarnished Kennedy’s image.
I scanned a half-dozen news Web sites Wednesday afternoon and they were dominated by stories of Kennedy’s great career as a U.S. Senator. You had to look hard to find the bad stuff – Chappaquiddick or other references to Kennedy’s fabled drinking and womanizing.
I looked at foxnews.com and cnn.com, and couldn’t find a recognizable difference in the tone or level of coverage.
I wasn’t alone with that thought, though. Apparently the Cable channel coverage wasn’t as similar. As TIME TV critic James Poniewozik noted on his blog, Fox gave Kennedy’s death considerably less coverage than the other cable networks.
Frankly, the fact that Fox News paid less attention to Kennedy’s death than CNN and MSNBC doesn’t bother me. As Poniewozik noted, Fox was simply giving its viewers what they want.
Anyone who has worked with me can tell you I put readers’ interests first when making news decisions. It’s not about what I want; it’s about what readers want. Sometimes I’ve made decisions that were against my nature – but what I thought readers wanted and expected.
Fox News executives know their viewers. They understand that Kennedy’s death was important, but that their viewers would want them to give the necessary details, then get on to something else.
Then there’s The Onion, which got some criticism for attacking Kennedy with satire too quickly.
Again, I can’t be too critical. That’s what The Onion does. Don’t go there if you don’t want to be offended. Offending anyone and everyone is what makes The Onion fun. And satire has a way at getting to some truths that are hard to find otherwise.
Bottom line: I thought the coverage I saw, in newspapers, on the Internet and TV, was comprehensive and interesting. Even though I’ve followed Ted Kennedy’s career my entire life, I learned some things I didn’t know, and the balance of good and bad seemed to be appropriate.
The character flaws were neither hidden or played out of proportion. Kennedy came across as a great man with some personal problems, which is probably pretty close to the truth.