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American Journalism Review
A Media Event to Top Them All  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   October 1997

A Media Event to Top Them All   

It was not just Diana's death but the global wrenching.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The story about the story of Princess Diana's death was this: It was the biggest media event in history. Not the paparazzi. Not even the coverage's stunning surrender to celebrities and their hired guns: agents, spokesmen, "protection specialists," financial dependents of every stripe who live by favors from the rich and famous.

The core story itself was a whopper: the glamorous and beloved princess killed in a wild, reckless ride through Paris at midnight, her new lover at her side. But the world's greatest media event only began with the deaths and the funeral.

The turnout of millions of people (a billion? even two billion?) to watch and listen and read the reports and then their pilgrimages to mourning lines across the world, an astounding and even mysterious manifestation of human grief, hope and loss, and our mass participation in the revolving coverage: That was the media story of our time.

Tony Blair's phrase "the people's princess" took hold around the world. But even that was not big enough, as it turned out. She was the first Queen of the Global Village, a media world that parallels our own.

The whole point, said Tom Shales of the Washington Post, seemed to be that the entire world felt it needed a good cry. People, said a mourner outside the British Embassy, need a place to put their feelings. Maybe that said it all.

Even as I write, the key facts about the paparazzi's role are not known. But there will be fallout for a long time to come on the hallowed battlefield of media and public figures.

We have a panoply of privacy laws, state and federal, with widely divergent particulars. Hidden cameras, tape recording, stalking, trespassing, personal harassment, photographs taken without permission, all have inspired legislation.

Why are even the most reasonable of these laws not enforced when that is important? Paris police, and California police, let cars leap to 100 miles an hour without interference, for celebrities and their entourages, including paparazzi.

For all the wailing from Hollywood (and of course some celebrities have been treated horribly), the truth is that many stars thrive on the chase. Actors, as someone said, no longer just want to be actors. So stars beg for coverage and try mercilessly (along with their studios) to control it.

Why do they do it? If you want the fascinated attention of tens of millions and more, want to be gossiped about to get on the covers (the denials also help), want to be bigger than bigger than life – in short, want to explode your audiences and your wealth in measures beyond the comprehension of mortals – well, you put up with a few things.

Of course, you still want it both ways. George Clooney, actor, became Clooney the constitutional authority. He called a press conference to propose overturning New York Times vs. Sullivan, though he didn't mention the name and may never have actually heard of the case except to seize upon the words "malicious intent." He wanted to take care of a few pests (and no doubt others) by dismissing, as an annoyance, three decades of law flowing from Sullivan.

The story is not over. Nor is the story about the story. l

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