COMMENTS: Teddy Kennedy is in a Parlous State

My mother Ruth Tyndall died of brain cancer, just four months or so after her symptoms first appeared. It was certainly bitter news that led the three network newscasts. The seizure that struck Edward Kennedy--the senior senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic lion of liberalism, the 76-year-old patriarch of the Irish-American clan, the former First Brother--has been diagnosed as a symptom of a malignant glioma in the left parietal lobe of his brain. Coverage was extensive, accounting for 38% of the three-network newshole (22 min out of 57) and ranging from the human to the medical to the political. The shock of the news was dramatized by the wail of anguish on the Senate floor from Kennedy's longtime colleague Robert Byrd: "Ted, my dear friend. I love you and I miss you."

NBC's Andrea Mitchell noted the irony that Kennedy, "the Senate's leading champion for healthcare, recently declared War on Cancer." ABC's Jake Tapper described the mood in the halls of the Senate as one of "mournful pessimism…shock, with senators waiting to hear just how bad the prognosis is. A couple of senators, wanting to do something but not wanting to bother Kennedy or his family, took to the Senate floor to give their well wishes hoping that he was watching C-SPAN from the hospital."

There was no sugarcoating to be found from the medical coverage. "When you hear about somebody dying suddenly of brain cancer, sadly, it is usually this kind," NBC's Robert Bazell stated. "Statistically, as everybody is pointing out, this is grim news." ABC anchor Charles Gibson consulted his network's in-house physician Timothy Johnson (embargoed link) and found the same stark reality: "It is not a good cancer. It is a fast-growing cancer." The fact that the senator had a brain scan less than six months ago that found nothing "shows how fast this tumor can arise and grow. It is a startling tumor in many ways." On CBS, anchor Katie Couric talked to Michael Sisti, a Columbia University neurosurgeon: "If the tumor is infiltrating deeply into the brain then there would be risk to sensory function or movement, in which case surgery would probably be a bad idea." "Pretty dangerous?" "Yes."

The assessment of Kennedy's political clout came close to the tone of an obituary. NBC's Mitchell reported that Kennedy is "described by political allies and adversaries as the greatest legislator of his time." CBS' Bob Schieffer observed that "the politicians the public sometimes sees as the most partisan and divisive are often seen within the institution of the Senate as the most respected and most willing to reach across the aisle to get things done. No one--liberal, conservative, Republican or Democrat--was more trusted by his colleagues." ABC anchor Charles Gibson put it this way: "Fellow senators, political friend and foe alike, say he has influenced virtually every important piece of Congressional legislation in his 46 years in the Senate."

CBS--which did not even mention the word Chappaquiddick in a potted bio although ABC and NBC both did--had Randall Pinkston cover the news of Kennedy's illness from Boston: "Back in his home state voters are also in shock." He quoted from the statement by Teddy's wife Victoria that he is "making me crazy and making me laugh by pushing to race in the Figawi this weekend." Pinkston helpfully explained that the Figawi is a yacht race without elaborating on the local lore of its name's derivation, since to do so he would have had to curse like a sailor.


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