The Princess And the Press  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   October 1997

The Princess And the Press   

Their relationship was much more complex than the way it is often portrayed.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The cab driver snorted.

This came as a surprise, since he hadn't said anything in the 10 minutes or so I'd been in the cab. I asked him what was up.

"Diana. Diana," he said, motioning toward the radio. "Everything Diana."

His English wasn't that good, but there was nothing wrong with his media criticism. He explained that he had barely recovered from O.J. saturation, and now he was overwhelmed by the Princess Diana extravaganza. When, he wondered, would he encounter any substance in the American media?

Purists to the contrary, there's no doubt that Princess Diana's death was a story that merited massive coverage. Like O.J. before it, the Diana saga had an irresistible storyline, while at the same time raising issues worthy of serious exploration.

Too, the degree to which many people, particularly women, identified with the princess was truly staggering. There was something undeniably heroic about her struggle to overcome the scorn of the royal family and the rejection of her royal husband. Despite her glitzy trappings, it was that Everywoman quality that was the key to her appeal.

In explaining why he wanted to play down coverage of the auction of Princess Di's possessions not long before her death, Pete Hamill, then the editor of the New York Daily News, explained that women in Bensonhurst weren't interested in her.

Ùamill is a bright, talented man who's right much of the time. But in this case the man who precipitated his departure shortly thereafter, News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, had surer instincts than the celebrity editor.

When someone has this kind of resonance with so many people, massive coverage of her death is unavoidable.

That being said, what did go wrong is what always seems to go wrong in today's fevered media environment: All sense of proportion was lost. Diana overshadowed everything. And forever.

•ashington Post media writer Howard Kurtz noted the irony of a New York Daily News front page headline about the paparazzi surround-ing Diana's car –

"Ghouls" – which

ran near a promo for the dozen pages of Diana-related stories inside.

The Monday night after her death, the networks devoted 95 percent of their newscasts to the story, according to the Tyndall Weekly, which tracks such stats for a living. And that was just the beginning – night after night after night the news was dominated by the tragedy's aftermath. By the time the week ended, Diana's death had amassed more nightly coverage than any event since the 1991 coup against Gorbachev.

And newspapers and magazines hardly lagged far behind. If anyone really needed more evidence of the tabloidization of the news, of the apparent merger of news and celebrity-watching, here it was.

Of course, one of the major subplots of the coverage involved the media. The unvarnished villains of the piece were the paparazzi who stalked Diana and Dodi.

It's difficult not to be appalled by their behavior. But it's ludicrous to blame them for Diana's death.

Attacking the media – not always without good cause – has become one of the world's most popular sports. And so, inevitably, anger at the scruple-free photographers, who are hardly journalists, became transmogrified in some quarters into yet another indictment of journalism.

But while self-flagellation is in full flower in some journalistic quarters, it really doesn't make sense to add the sins of the paparazzi and the tabloids that support them to the litany of offenses committed by the field as a whole.

ýn fact, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in much of the popular outcry against the paparazzi. Because if there weren't a huge market for their wares, they wouldn't exist. Someone is buying the publications that run those grainy shots of bathing suit-clad celebs frolicking. There's an easy way to put them out of business: Just say no. But until that happens, as long as there's a demand for their work product (and as long as the tabs are paying colossal fees for it) the paparazzi will keep snapping.

One final point. Some of the outraged coverage and commentary on the ruthless pursuit of Diana by the evil photographers and tabloids was a little disingenuous. It left out a very salient fact: The princess was hardly a naive ingenue when it came to dealing with the media.

Far from it. She had few equals when it came to media manipulation. Whether it was the skillfully leaked detail or the artfully used photo op, Princess Di knew how to get her message across – and she did so often, repeatedly one-upping the royal family. She made ample use of that skill throughout the summer before her death.

As an excellent New York Times piece written by Roger Cohen put it, the princess "was a woman linked by her own design and desire to the photographers able to get her message across. The bond was often strained, occasionally violent, but it seems it was essential to Diana's role as she conceived it."

None of which is to excuse the actions of those who tormented her. But it's an important reminder that life rarely can be reduced to black and white. To lose sight of such distinctions just isn't very good journalism.

And depicting Diana as a deer caught in journalism's headlights as opposed to the complex figure she was merely fuels free-floating hostility toward the media, deflecting attention from the serious problems that need to be solved.

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