In '89, NBC Marked Chappaquiddick Anniversary With Gooey Story on How Teddy's 'King of the Hill'

It’s not new that the networks skipped the anniversary of Mary Jo Kopechne's death in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick. In 1989, NBC mentioned it as a sour moment now overcome, as an introduction to a story on how Kennedy gained new bipartisan respect as a great legislator, as "King of the Hill." In 1994, in our newsletter MediaWatch, we summarized how they also tried to ignore the 25th anniversary, or mentioned it in passing.

Sen. Ted Kennedy faces his toughest reelection bid ever, yet the national media conveniently ignored the tragedy at Chappaquiddick. The 25th anniversary of the incident came and went on July 18 with little media attention shown to the mystery surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. On July 18, CNN's Inside Politics ran a short story on Chappaquiddick, and it was alluded to during a segment on anniversaries on the July 17 Late Edition. It also received a brief mention on the July 24 CBS Evening News in a story on anniversaries. The New York Times on July 18, and Newsweek's July 25 edition also mentioned the tragedy as part of broader stories; ABC, NBC, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and U.S. News & World Report did not.

While no network found time to do an in-depth look at Chappaquiddick, both CNN and CBS found time to celebrate the 104th birthday of Rose Kennedy, with the July 24 CBS Sunday Morning devoting a full segment to the Kennedy matriarch. And in June of 1993, CNN and NBC evening shows ran stories on the 100th birthday of Cracker Jacks, as did CNN in celebration of G.I. Joe's 29th anniversary.

From the musty MRC archives, this is the transcript of a gooey Andrea Mitchell story from the July 18, 1989 NBC Nightly News.

MARY ALICE WILLIAMS, substitute anchor: It was 20 years ago tonight that a car swerved off a small bridge on Chappaquiddick Island off Massachusetts’s coast, and Chappaquiddick gave its name to a turning point in our political life. The car sank in the shallow water, and a young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was drowned. The driver, a young senator named Edward Kennedy, survived. But it changed his life and possibly ended his dream of becoming President. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tonight on how Ted Kennedy is winning respect, 20 years later.

KENNEDY: On the issue of refugees and asylum, I yield to no one in my commitment in that area!

ANDREA MITCHELL: In reforming the immigration law last week, Ted Kennedy was updating rules he first legislated in 1965. It’s that kind of nuts-and-bolts work that has earned him the respect of colleagues – even conservatives.

SEN. BOB DOLE: He works hard. He always has a liberal agenda, wish he’s shade that a bit. But he’s effective. He gets things done.

VICE PRES. DAN QUAYLE: He and I have a very good chemistry between each other. I feel that he is a friend of mine even though we have disagreements.

MITCHELL: Some call him King of the Hill, with a hand in every big issue, child care, health care, civil rights, education, minimum wage, arms control. It’s a leadership role no one would have envisioned when the inexperienced Kennedy was propelled by his family into the Senate.

EDWARD McCORMACK, opposing Ted Kennedy in 1962 primary: If his name was Edward Moore, with his qualifications -- with your qualifications, Teddy, your candidacy would be a joke.

MITCHELL: The Kennedy birthright brought both privilege and burden.

ROBERT HEALY, former editor, Boston Globe: In a sense, he was the little brother, but he’s gone through this enormous turmoil, public turmoil in his life, and it’s left some scar tissue. So you see this very private man.

Healy baked up exactly the kind of saccharine royal-family narrative from journalistic courtiers that make conservatives sneer at the idea that the Kennedys would be cover with any professionalism or detachment. Mitchell followed up with misty-eyed talk of inheriting a tragic destiny:

MITCHELL: He inherited the advantage of family and wealth, and the tragic destiny of being the only surviving male, the last Kennedy of his generation able to seek the White House. It’s an expectation that lasted, despite Chappaquiddick.

JIMMY CARTER, stumbling: Ted Kennedy, the next president – next, after this.

MITCHELL: For years, everything from his weight to his troubled marriage [to first wife Joan] were studied for signs of presidential ambition. The White House dream attracted a top-notch Senate staff. But when he sought the nomination in 1980, they were still questions about Chappaquiddick, and he couldn’t explain why he wanted the office.

KENNEDY: I’m glad I’m who I am, and I’m, uh, but I think that there are, uh, there are challenges, being that.

MITCHELL: At the convention, Kennedy captured the delegates’ hearts, but not the nomination.

KENNEDY, 1980 convention speech: The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

MITCHELL: While conceding to Carter, he denied him the traditional outstretched arm of party unity. The loss began the painful process of realizing he would never fulfill that part of the Kennedy dream. He made his non-candidacy official in 1985.

KENNEDY: I know that this decision means that I may never be president, but this pursuit of the presidency is not my life.

Once again, Mitchell turned to Kennedy's Republican Senate friends, who could not manage a single discouraging word about his character -- or maybe it would not be allowed by the Kennedy-adoring censors at NBC:

SEN. ALAN SIMPSON: Once he got that off of him, then he could do those issues, and then they’d say, "I wonder why he’s doing this. And it might be just because it needed to be done."

MITCHELL: Kennedy can now joke that he doesn’t mind being President, he just minds that someone else is. And in giving up hopes for the White House, he finally has a role of his own.

SIMPSON: I don’t think he feels any pain or anguish from it because he has the one thing that all of us cherish, you as well as me, and that’s privacy.

MITCHELL, over video of Teddy doing the sign of the cross over JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery: Or at least as much privacy as a Kennedy can ever have. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News at the U.S. Capitol.

This ending note is particularly sickening. A sympathetic publicity clip of Kennedy praying at his brother's grave is matched with Mitchell lamenting his lack of privacy. It's oily enough that the microphone should have slipped out of her hand.

Williams ended with this note: "A nationwide poll of Democratic voters released today shows that 30 percent still feel Kennedy should be disqualified from running for president because of Chappaquiddick, but when asked their choice for president, more chose Kennedy than anyone else."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis