Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wednesdays at Michael's by Diane Clehane

PEOPLE’s New Podcast: Chappaquiddick On Cover-Up

Diane Clehane & Liz McNeil
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I consider my time working in the New York bureau of PEOPLE magazine like going to j-school without being saddled with crushing student loans. It was there that I learned what it meant to be a true professional reporter – and, above all else, never to miss a deadline. Everyone in the bureau worked like hell and gave it their all every single day (you had to just to keep up) but no one more than this week’s lunch date, Liz McNeil.

I first met Liz in 1999 when I took a temporary job working at the iconic weekly. It was August, and unbeknownst to me, Liz had just come off an extraordinary assignment covering the shocking death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her sister, Lauren Bessette. She was always the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave at night, but she still made time to teach me the very specific skill set required of every PEOPLE reporter including how to write a story file (which is something between a science and an art form).

Liz has covered it all in her 25 years with PEOPLE. Princess Diana’s car crash, Newtown, McCain’s presidential run --- even Bethenny Frankel’s rise from reality show fixture to millionaire mogul. She recently reported on Catherine Oxenberg’s quest to rescue her daughter from the controversial group NXIVM which has been making headlines of late. No matter what the subject, Liz always approaches the story with intelligence, empathy, and endless curiosity. She cares about the story – and more importantly, she cares about getting it right.

Click to podcast

Having risen through the ranks from reporter to bureau chief to east coast editor, Liz describes her new role at PEOPLE as “the most challenging story I’ve worked on.” I think she is more than up to the job. She is the writer and host of Cover-Up, the title’s new weekly podcast series that explores the unanswered questions surrounding the events that happened off the island of Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts on July 18, 1969, that left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne dead when Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge. Kennedy survived – and waited ten hours to report the accident to authorities. The events of that night forever marked the senator who wrote in his autobiography he was “haunted” by Chappaquiddick observing, “Atonement is a process that never ends.” The scandal and mystery continue to shock and intrigue us nearly 50 years after it first happened.

Cover-Up premiered last month on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. It is produced by Christina Everett, Meredith Corporation, in conjunction with Cadence13. I’ve listened to the first two episodes and they’re riveting. There are seven episodes in all (a new one drops tomorrow). And if you think you know the story of what happened at Chappaquiddick, think again.

Liz began working on the project last fall after the idea to re-examine the events of Chappaquiddick and its aftermath was selected from a number of pitches made by the editors at PEOPLE. “My first reaction was it’s too complicated,” said Liz as we tucked into our chicken paillard.

But, as is her wont, Liz began methodically digging into the story determined to talk to anyone who could shed light on what happened. She has spoken to over 50 people including family members, law enforcement officials, and witnesses and pored over 1000 pages of legal documents. Liz told me she’s set up a “make-shift war room” with storyboards that often times remind her “of Carrie Mathison’s boards on Homeland.” Said Liz, “There are more questions than answers.”

During Liz’s first visit to Martha’s Vineyard in January, the winter’s chill and the dense fog which enveloped the island only added to the eerie atmosphere of a small town which will forever be synonymous with the tragedy. She found locals were more than willing to revisit the events of the past. “They took me out to the bridge. It’s like a ramp. Now there’s a railing but it’s like this high,” she said holding her hand a few inches off the table. “To understand the story you have to understand there’s a ‘T’ in the road. A left takes you to the ferry; right goes to the bridge. Ted said he intended to go to the ferry and yet he ends up on the bridge, and for that, you have to make an intentional right turn,” said Liz.

Because the events happened so long ago, Liz told me she quickly came to realize that reporting the story was “a race against time” because “Several people I wanted to interview have died in the last few months.”

Kopechne’s parents are dead, but her cousin Georgetta Potoski has been instrumental in putting the pieces together in getting a clearer picture of who the ill-fated young woman was.  “Mary Jo was considered a footnote,” she told me. “[Her family] wants her story to be told.” Liz said the Kennedy family has also been made “aware” of the podcast and its subject matter.

Having been a print reporter for so long, I asked Liz what it was like working in a different medium. “The podcast is an oral history. This story lent itself to that.” In fact, I found listening to the key players who were there the night in question, adds a heft and credibility to a story that has been mythologized to the point that no one knows what is fact and what is fiction anymore. “There are so much people don’t know,” said Liz. “This case has left an imprint on the country."

In July of 1969, the country was still reeling from the violent death of Robert F. Kennedy 13 months before. In fact, the party on Chappaquiddick which Ted Kennedy and Kopechne had attended was for staffers who had worked for RFK, as Kopechne did. “She was not a secretary,” said Liz. “She was devoted to RFK and typed his declaration to run for president. She was devastated by Bobby’s assassination.”

In the shadow of the Kennedy legend, Chappaquiddick is, when you listen to the podcast, the story of a small town which was completely unprepared to handle an event like this involving America’s most famous family. “The immense losses the Kennedys have endured are unimaginable,” said Liz. In one of the episodes I’ve listened to, Chief Jim Arena, now 88, says that he does not know why he didn’t ask specific questions of Kennedy in the aftermath of the accident and admits the family’s celebrity and influence absolutely altered the course of the investigation.

“It’s like a labyrinth,” said Liz. “There are layers upon layers upon layers.” The smallest detail, she explained (I’m not revealing any spoilers, so I’m not going into specifics) depends on two factors: what the individual (thinks) they saw and what their agenda could be. Why did Kennedy wait ten hours to report Kopechne’s death? Was she alive when he emerged from the water and left the scene? Was there someone else with them? These are all questions addressed by various sources interviewed on the podcast and some of their answers will shock you.

Trust me when I tell you, this podcast paints a picture of the events of Chappaquiddick nothing on the printed page ever could.  Liz is currently writing the fifth episode. “I don’t know how it’s going to end yet,” she said. “But I hope that by hearing the voices of the people who lived through it, we can get closer to the truth.”


Scene & Heard Around the Room

Peter Brown on Table Four … Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff with a squadron of suits we didn’t recognize. Anyone? … Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman at their usual perch on Table Six … PR maven Susan Blond on Seven … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia who, so we’re told, will be the subject of a new documentary. The cameramen were everywhere today. They even wanted to go in and take a look at the ladies room (I doubt David has even been in there, but evidently to see the photographs on the wall). Never a dull moment on a Wednesday at Michael’s!

And There’s More …

MediaVillage founder Jack Myers on Eleven … Producer John Hart on Twelve. Long time no see! … Sofia Coppola on Table Fourteen.  Did you see her latest film, The Beguiled? Sexy and spooky. I loved it! … United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky at his favorite table, Sixteen … Jack Kliger who told me he just this minute sold British Heritage Travel to an Irish (!) media company.

A little birdie told me the reason the Garden Room was closed today was because the North American Meat Institute was hosting a private luncheon. According to someone in the know, the group’s bylaws prohibited them from serving any alcohol to their guests who included industry bigwig Suzanne Strassburger who goes by the name "Suzie Sirloin".  I kid you not.

See you at Michael’s next week!

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