There was no doubt that Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts had died if anyone listened to NPR in the days after his death late on Aug. 25 from brain cancer. Between Aug. 26 and 30, NPR ran 53 stories.
Before Kennedy even died, NPR had 7 in-depth stories already prepared, according to David Sweeney, NPR's managing editor. "From shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, we worked up a list of stories both for the air and online," said Sweeney. "We also worked to produce a couple of obits that would reflect his life, in all its aspects."
Media saturation on the Kennedy story was not unique to NPR. A report released Tuesday by the Project on Excellence in Journalism noted that Kennedy's death was the No.1 story last week. "Indeed, his passing generated more coverage than that of any other political or celebrity since the PEJ News Coverage Index began in January 2007," said the report.
On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Morning Edition ran 6 stories on Kennedy — covering 34 minutes. To put that in perspective, Morning Edition produces 1 hour and 14-minutes of editorial content each day after newscasts, breaks and funders are taken out.
Tell Me More devoted 19 minutes to Kennedy. Talk of the Nation devoted 48 minutes to an NPR special on remembering Kennedy. By late that afternoon, half the stories (45 minutes) on All Things Considered related to Kennedy's passing. Total programming time across two hours of ATC, excluding newscasts, breaks, funders, is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.
NPR also pulled together an hour-long special that went out to stations Wednesday evening. And that's just on-air coverage. More was written on npr.org.
But on that first day, in the 23 on-air stories, only one mentioned the name Mary Jo Kopechne and 5 mentioned Chappaquiddick.
Kopechne was the young woman who Kennedy left to drown on July 18,1969 after the car he was driving plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. Kopechne, a former campaign worker, was in the water for eight or nine hours before Kennedy reported the accident to the police. While Kennedy was deemed responsible for the drowning death, he never served time in jail. (See 1988 New York Times investigation exploring what happened at Chappaquiddick.)
NPR's Brian Naylor did tell the Chappaquiddick story during a 9-minute obit for Morning Edition. But the focus was on how Chappaquiddick and the death of Kopechne derailed Kennedy's presidential ambitions.
"An effort to draft the youngest Kennedy for the White House was short lived at the Democratic convention of 1968, and his presidential aspirations were dealt a blow a year later when in July of 1969, his car went off a small bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick," said Naylor. "Kennedy swam to safety, leaving behind the young woman who was a passenger in his car. The woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker, drowned. Kennedy later called his actions indefensible. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, but his sentence was suspended and he remained popular in Massachusetts, where he was reelected to the Senate the next year."
Some listeners were unhappy with what they perceive as hagiography while downplaying the darker chapters in Kennedy's life.
"In your story on Ted Kennedy your reports vacillate between naming the young woman in the Chappaquiddick accident and just calling her a 'young campaign aid.'" She had a name and her name should always be used," wrote Laurel Barton, of Seattle. "It was Mary Jo Kopechne. It is disrespectful and degrading to refer to her as just a 'young campaign aid.'"
Michael Whitaker of Beaufort, SC added, "I work at a chemical plant in Savannah and mention of Ted Kennedy's passing brought up nothing but negative comments, particularly about his murder of Mary Jo Kopechne and how he was able to cover it up. I'd like to hear more from her family."
More complete coverage of Kennedy's foibles appeared on Talk of the Nation on Aug. 26. The now-famous island was mentioned 10 times in a 48-minute segment that more fully explored what happened at Chappaquiddick.
"Chappaquiddick was mentioned in stories where appropriate and we made a consistent effort to reflect in show two-ways and subsequent pieces the flaws and failings in the Senator's life and career," said Sweeney.
Kennedy may have been a great legislator. He may have been a wonderful uncle, a terrific father, a faithful friend and rejoiced in his second marriage, but there were warts too. He got kicked out of Harvard for cheating. He was known in his younger years for womanizing and drinking too much. In 1991, he was carousing with his son, Patrick and nephew, William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach. Later that night, a woman accused Smith of raping her. Smith was tried and later acquitted.
Not everyone loved Teddy Kennedy. He was a complex man with a family history that defies belief when all the tragedies are strung together. To accurately portray any man or woman, it is just as important to fully include what is unpleasant or unflattering — especially since those events for Kennedy went a long way toward shaping who Teddy Kennedy was when he died.