It’s been 20 years since the Friday-evening small-plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and one of Carolyn’s older twin sisters, Lauren Bessette.
I was the managing editor of People magazine’s website, three months into the job after spending the previous 10 years in business news. This era seems so quaint now. Celebrity blogs didn’t exist. Neither did social media. People had one print competitor that it took seriously — US Weekly. Editors expressed little interest in Internet upstart E! Online, perceiving, instead, a threat from the magazine’s own website. Accordingly, rather than using People.com to break news, the print side would only release big stories to us after they ran in the magazine. Because the focus was on the written word, the magazine didn’t consider television shows like Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, or even the entire E! network to be serious celeb-news rivals. The print executives were also unfazed by my previous place of employment, the 24-hour news network CNN.
In 1999, the only significant reality show was The Real World on MTV, which premiered in 1992. Excluding the death of Real World cast member Pedro Zamora from AIDS in 1994, that was kid stuff — not for the Midwestern moms that People invited to focus groups. The broader reality-celebrity culture had yet to emerge. American Idol hadn’t aired yet. Neither had Survivor, The Bachelor, Fear Factor, or The Amazing Race. Four years would pass before The Simple Life introduced Kim Kardashian to the world as Paris Hilton’s assistant. In the absence of reality stardom, People’s celebrity covers tended to feature big names that everyone knew, like Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Madonna, and Richard Gere. And there was Princess Diana, Princess Diana, and more Princess Diana. People, which was the big revenue-generator at the Time Inc. magazine group, saw no reason to take chances. Britney Spears released her #1 single “…Baby One More Time” in 1998, but when I got there the following year, the print magazine’s editorial staff was still debating whether the moms of the Midwest would know who this young girl was, or whether she was fodder for the separate Teen People magazine only. (My take was that the moms had surely heard of her through their children.) The magazine’s eventual 2000 Britney cover wound up asking the disapproving-mom question, “Too Sexy Too Soon?”
Anyway, I was used to handling breaking news due to working not only at CNN but also at Dow Jones’s wire service and the Wall Street Journal’s online edition. Most of the People.com staff I inherited were more feature- or even technology-focused, so it was with some trepidation that I went to Los Angeles to see family for a weekend. I figured that for 48 hours, I was probably safe from a celebrity generating the kind of news that would make an old-school print weekly like People leap into action on a weekend. I mean, if Britney Spears wasn’t a big enough star for People, who was? Elvis was long gone. Diana had died in 1997. I sent out mental feelers to Madonna, Queen Elizabeth II, and Bill Clinton and convinced myself they were all in good health.
As a fail-safe, there was an emergency call list for massive breaking news. (I was told that the plan was created after key reporters and editors were unreachable immediately after Princess Diana’s fatal car accident.) I was normally the person on the list, but for my brief trip, I transferred the responsibility to a rather nervous website employee. I told her not to worry, because if the news was big enough for People to call her, it was big enough for her to call me immediately, and I would take responsibility for everything.
She called early the next morning.
I could write a whole separate blog post about how I updated People.com with the initial news that the Kennedy flight was considered to be missing, while I argued with various print staffers about their efforts to hold back reporting for some imaginary magazine exclusive. The magazine was a relic, refusing to grapple with the way the distribution of information was speeding up and fragmenting. That Saturday, CNN was already at multiple sites, reporting around the clock like it did for Diana in 1997, TWA 800 in 1996, and O.J. Simpson in 1994. If I recall correctly, I actually attributed the first reports to CNN. It couldn’t wait: JFK Jr., Carolyn, and Lauren were the biggest story in the world. I knew there wasn’t going to be anything exclusive.
It’s hard to believe that this happened 20 years ago, but it was hard to believe at the moment too. I vividely remember my personal reaction to the phone call from my staffer because it was one of three times that the news of a death so shocked me that I felt as if I’d never heard that name before in my life. I couldn’t process the words. My mind was racing, but about whom? For a long, strange moment, I wasn’t sure. I just knew I had to get out of bed and turn on CNN and my laptop, so that’s what I did.