November 22nd, 2013
There’s been a lot of focus and nostalgia about the event, especially through television documentaries about every aspect of the Kennedy family, their personalities and flaws, and extensive attention to continuing theories about the fatal day itself. Like everyone else old enough to remember the moment, I vividly recall my own place in that history—when my elementary school teach came into our classroom in tears, announcing the tragedy and the closing of our school for the rest of the day. I went home and started watching the news coverage on both Canadian and American networks, and kept watching through the next few days with the rest of family, riveted as we were to the details, and participating in the mass expression of mourning electronically.
This is really the first time anyone had experienced that kind of truly mass commune with and through television, which in its powerful visual immediacy gave us unique and intimate access to such a large and distant world. Among other effects, it established the possibility of the cult of Jacqueline Kennedy, who Andy Warhol captured so well in his famous series of prints of her iconic yet elusive presence. One might say that everything we are now mired in regarding the culture of celebrity stems from the creation of Jackie O on television in 1963 and following. Indeed, as we have been learning all week, the First Lady, or FLOTUS, as she is now commonly known, had a direct hand in shaping the image of the Kennedys as the natural residents of Camelot, an exaggerated and clearly phony image that has been impossible to discard even after everything else we have learned about the family since.
Nothing was ever quite the same after that. Television became the fetishized necessity of every self-respecting household. Its sheer and irresistible capacity to reveal the world could never be denied. The internet has only extended the promise of television, not replaced it. The dream of immediate, real-time access to real-world events is still being realized through both the web and its precursor. Television has been playing hard to keep pace with the digital speed at which images can be delivered to our desktops or smart phones. News shows are more colourful and loud, as if we needed to be constantly snapped out of our couch comas. Television might not be as fast by any stretch, but its slowness has a big advantage in being able to pause and reflect on events, at least through the patient camera lens and the observations of reporters and journalists who can offer a shape to the events, in real time and upon reflection. I don’t always agree with them or like what they are saying, but that’s part of the dialogue one has with TV—or all media coverage.
I am thinking about this a lot these days as the Canadian scandals of our Senate and, of course, the ongoing travesty of Rob Ford, are gripped by the media. Like so many other political junkies, I am addicted to these stories as they are unfolding in all their lurid, unseemly, lowest-human denominator baseness, tracking the details through both the web and television. But the latter medium gives me more, gives me analysis and perspective—without which I could not make sense of the tumble of information. Possibly it’s my generation speaking here, but everyone I work and play with is talking about these two Canadian narratives right now, consumed by and fascinated with just how much badness lurks behind the big hard doors of power. And we are all watching television of these events, making reference to the same interviews, revelations, accounts, and commentaries. We are once again sharing in a vast communal conversation about the very trappings of privilege and its abuse, which only television, and in particular public television, can provide.
I’d love to teach a communications course right now on the way news stories are being circulated through various media, especially the scandals of the moment. What kind of picture of Canada is being shaped for us at the moment, and do we all see the same thing? I think of television news as slow news now, which, like slow food, is ultimately more digestible, pleasurable, and certainly better for you in long run.