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Freepers, Weepers?

Strange signs of humanity appear on web.


Posted Monday, July 19, 1999

        When it comes to obituaries, the American press' tradition is one of selective honesty in the service of kindness. I first became acquainted with this tradition when, as a writer at Newsweek, I was assigned the obit of Clare Boothe Luce. "We want your take," my editors said. They didn't, of course. They killed my scintillating lead paragraph, which featured Luce's answer when asked if she thought sex was dirty. ("I don't know," she'd said, "but it sure is smelly.") They even excised a reference to Luce's famous conjugal experiments with LSD.

        I learned my lesson. Kausfiles will uphold journalistic tradition with respect to John F. Kennedy Jr. (Not that I have anything particularly negative to say.) But on the Internet the speak-no-ill convention -- like so many other journalistic mores -- seems to have broken down.

        One indication came Saturday when a Fox News Channel anchor felt compelled to mention emails the network had received criticizing its round-the-clock JFK, Jr. coverage. Fox's dilemma seems clear: the network prospered when it was adopted by anti-Clinton conservatives, many of whose sentiments were whipped into a paranoid froth during the Flytrap scandal, and whose antipathy may logically extend to the Kennedys. These viewers wouldn't like the Di-ification of John-John one bit, would they? And they were now empowered by modern computer technology to make their views felt, instantly, at the highest levels of mediadom.

        In search of some truly tasteless anti-Kennedy postings, I checked out Free Republic, the conservative site loony-friendly enough to have been denounced by Lucianne Goldberg. I was not disappointed. There, published to the world, were wacky conspiracy theories ("What if he wasn't the target?"), most of them Clintocentric ("This covers the PBS scandal," or "It would be very interesting to know what John-John's position was on Hillary's run for the Senate.") More repulsive were the un-conspiratorial postings of the gloaters: "To hell with John-John," one said. "Oh, well, one more dead Kennedy for the list. NBD," said another. "'Ted will call the cops tomorrow and admit he was the pilot.' Ah, great line!"

        But there was also something else: a Freeper had posted Christopher Hitchens' appreciative semi-obituary of JFK, Jr.. Hitchens is a great hack, which I admire. He had this article up on Salon, it seemed, before the Coast Guard had even gotten out of bed to search for Kennedy's plane. The piece isn't especially brilliant, but it achieves one version of the hack ideal (articulated by Liebling, I'm told) which is to be better than everyone who is faster than you and faster than everyone who is better than you.

        And it had a surprising effect on the Freepers -- prompting 39 straight benign expressions of mourning (sample: "May their Faith & God's Love comfort them at this very sad time"). It was all oddly moving, even if the string was eventually broken by one "MLedeen," who warned "Do not assume that, simply because Hitchens hates the Clintons, he's a decent person." Have the Freepers gone soft? Probably not. But if a leftish hack eulogizing a Kennedy can stumble into some human commonality with the defensive, insular Clintophobes of the right (Salon and Free Republic, together again!) there's room for hope, no?

Hall to World: Stop Thinking!

        Enough niceness. Didn't Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, come across as a jerk on Sunday with his scolding lectures about how people should avoid "speculation" about the causes of the crash until the NTSB is finished with its investigation in six-to-nine months? (Hall also instructed that there is a "possibility we will never know," in which case we are presumably enjoined from speculation forever). Note to Chairman Hall: The reporters and viewers weren't gathered to hear you because they were spreading rumors. They were trying to find out the facts that will dispel rumors. And people will speculate, whether you approve or not. "Speculation" is another name for thinking. ... Hall may be defensive because he's been criticized for his handling of the TWA Flight 800 investigation. But preemptively denouncing "speculation" is the surest way to encourage speculation of the most paranoid sort. After all, isn't that just what they'd tell you if they were covering it all up? ... Hall's point about "never" knowing is also eerily similar to what Clinton said when Vince Foster committed suicide? ("No one can ever know why this happened. ...") That sure tamped down the rumors, didn't it?

Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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