Sweet Caroline

Skepticism is a journalistic golden rule. Don’t banish it now.

Now that Caroline Kennedy has announced her intention to seek the Senate seat expected to be vacated by Hillary Clinton, it’s left to the media to take the news and make something of it. Howard Kurtz says that the media are secretly glad about the Kennedy news, and that they, “quite frankly, want David Paterson to name Caroline because they love celebrities and are enamored of family dynasties.” Does the loving accusation stand? Today’s coverage shows some fawning over the reclusive Kennedy, but some strong skepticism as well.

Three of today’s headlines show some differences in timbre and tone:

The Washington Post: “Friends Say Kennedy Has Long Wanted Public Role” (most sympathetic)

Los Angeles Times: “Caroline Kennedy launches Senate campaign” (most star-stricken, indicated in part by a glam photo of president-elect Obama with his arm around Kennedy)

The New York Times: “As Privacy Ends for Kennedy, a Rough Path Awaits” (most skeptical)

The first half of Anne Kornblut’s account in the Post reads like a flattering profile of Kennedy’s character and achievements in the private sector. In nuanced detail, Kornblut trots out Kennedy’s more glossy qualifications in what seems like an attempt to assay her holistic worth. Kennedy, Kornblut writes, is “a poised, intellectual mother of three who is devoted to quiet reflection and philanthropic causes,” who “is perhaps most acclaimed for raising tens of millions in private money for the New York City school system,” and who “works with multiple foundations, playing an active role in the Kennedy library and the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.” These are biographical and professional details that, sympathetically or not, go hand in hand with her star power, and to list them off in so easily complimentary a manner (the adjectives may make Kennedy blush) is to lose sight of the topic at hand.

Regarding Kennedy’s motivations for seeking public office, the article presents too unqualified a narrative for someone with no political experience. On her involvement in Obama’s campaign, Kornblut writes gushingly: “Kennedy added to [Obama’s] momentum in a way that would be unstoppable,” by endorsing him, emotionally, on the opinion pages of the NYT. And don’t forget that she made “some high-wattage appearances” and “shared the stage with Obama’s wife, Michelle, at a Los Angeles rally that also included Oprah Winfrey.” Kornblut additionally notes (this is in her lead) that Kennedy liked performing such modest tasks as “carrying a clipboard to register voters and walking through a flea market to shake hands.”

While the image of the publicity-shy Caroline Kennedy performing menial campaign tasks (and appearing on behalf of Obama) is touching, and summons the image of a willing public servant, it does nothing to topple any of the doubts that even her supporters have. Burying those doubts deep in the article, as Kornblut does, does readers a disservice. As Kurtz notes, unless Kennedy acts like a campaigner, “she furthers the impression that she wants the seat once held by her Uncle Bobby presented to her without having to get her hands dirty”—and regardless of the feel-good reaction that readers may have to the news that “she worked phone banks and chatted up people on the street,” it only superficially responds to the question that Kurtz and many others pose.

The LAT account, for its part, glows with this unnecessarily full-steam-ahead news:

Caroline Kennedy launched a full-bore campaign Monday to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate, calling New York’s governor and other key Democrats to press her desire to extend the family dynasty.

To boot, the article, written by staff writers Mark Barabak and Michael Finnegan, is full of “buts”—apparently its way of addressing doubts about her qualifications. Kennedy “has shied away from public attention most of her life.” “But she assumed a much higher political profile over the past year” with her endorsement of Obama. She “has never held elected office.” “But the Ivy League-educated lawyer has devoted years to charitable works and other activities associated with her family and public service” (my emphases). While these are factual assertions, the quick turnarounds of these pairings read as defensive rejoinders rather than an objective report; and like the Post, the LAT buries the skeptical voices at the bottom of the page.

The NYT does the best job presenting the mixed tone of the situation. The article, written by Adam Nagourney and Nicholas Confessore, calls Kennedy’s decision to enter politics “a gamble” and succinctly yet prominently sketches the variegated colors of the announcement:

She must overcome skepticism about her experience and credentials, and deflate what some Democrats view as a sense of entitlement by a member of a storied American political family trying to begin her political career near the top of the ladder.

Kennedy’s decision to seek appointment to the Senate is certainly buzzworthy news. But as the NYT did, it’s important to maintain a grasp on the skepticism, rather than rolling in unenforced delight over the possibility of another Kennedy in the Senate, and an extension of Camelot for the media’s consumption.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.