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From AJR,   October 1997  issue

"The Front Page" on Speed   


By Deborah Baldwin
Deborah Baldwin, the former editor of Common Cause Magazine, is now a freelancer in Paris.      

What you saw on TV was seamless coverage of a mega story, proof of how far the media have come since the days of teletype and carrier pigeon. Too bad you couldn't see what happened off camera.

As news of Princess Diana's untimely death swept the world, enfolding millions in a touching display of global grief, the Paris press corps was undergoing a different sort of communal experience: trench warfare.

With rumors flying overhead, boatloads of tabloid journalists debarking on the banks of the Seine, hysterical editors and producers giving impossible orders, and publishers sweating bullets over the cost of press-run delays and exclusive photos, last month's Dianathon was less the media's finest moment than "The Front Page" on speed.

"The home office isn't happy with our output," one Paris-based British editor informed her stunned staff at the start of their third straight 18-hour day. "They want to know why you can't do more."

Reporters began racing to strategic sites around Paris shortly after an Agence France Presse reporter signed out at midnight on August 31, drove past the accident scene en route home and called the office. AFP's bulletin, alerting the world that Princess Diana had been seriously injured in a car crash, went out at 1:32 a.m. Paris time. When Reuters confirmed the story and reported Dodi Al Fayed's death 26 minutes later, phones began ringing all over Paris, and reporters from Britain, and everywhere, began arranging flights to France.

Two-and-a-half hours later, Diana was pronounced dead, and the press faced reporting one of the most compelling human interest stories of our time. If official Paris was guarding the details of the tragedy, these were the brave men and women who would unearth the secrets.

Unfortunately, many of the fresh arrivals couldn't speak French. Worse, local officials didn't want to have anything to do with them. "We are totally exasperated by the constant calls of the press. Let's just let the judge work in peace," a deputy prosecutor snapped at one reporter whose editor had demanded another update on the Paparazzi Ten.

Staking out the courthouse at the height of the paparazzi uproar was a restless multinational mob of reporters, camera crews and photographers. Satellite vans clogged the tiny side streets, transforming the historic Ile de la Cité into a Felliniesque media carnival. At one point, when a lawyer for one of the accused photographers emerged, the anxious crowd surged forward, ready to uplink the latest crumb of information. "Can you give us a few quotes?" a desperate correspondent called out — not to the lawyer but to CNN's bilingual contributing correspondent, Paris veteran Jim Bittermann. "It's just depressing," Bittermann remarked later, referring to the latest big media trend: closing overseas bureaus and drop-shipping clueless roving reporters during times of need.

Media SWAT teams had come in the dark of night, abandoning their regular posts in London, Brussels and beyond. The British Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph shipped three correspondents over the Channel; British cable TV giant B Sky B sent two reporters and four technical staffers; a couple dozen others arrived from the British Independent, Guardian, Mail, Mirror and Times. Even the staid BBC went into high gear, putting three correspondents on a 5:30 a.m. flight on Sunday to help two regular Paris correspondents.

Some reporters were drawn into the fray by happenstance. Michael Slackman, in real life the Albany bureau chief for Newsday, coincidentally had cut short his vacation in rural southwest France and returned to Paris early, where he happened to be apartment- sitting for another journalist whose phone started ringing in the middle of the night. Slackman ignored the phone but turned on the TV and, though knowing no French, recognized the accident scene as close to where he was staying.

His real coup, however, was finding an English-speaking eyewitness — and happening to visit a friend in the maternity ward of the hospital where the accident victims were treated. While other scribes were seething at the entrance, Slackman slipped out of the maternity ward and into the private area where Prince Charles was bringing Diana's body past a watchful group of patients. "It was certainly a stunning series of coincidences," Slackman says.

Time Mideast correspondent Scott MacLeod, driving past the scene of the accident on his way home from a vacation in Brittany, also smelled a story. He dropped off his family at their nearby apartment and commandeered a cab that would take him from the accident site to the Ritz and then the hospital. He was armed with a tape recorder, camera and phone card — but he lacked that essential tool, the cell phone, and was forced to line up at phone booths.

MacLeod contributed not only to Time but to coverage by its corporate affiliate, CNN. Newsweek Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor Christopher Dickey, too, fed on-the-scene reporting to CNN, which had tracked him down with the help of a Newsweek public relations official. Dickey and MacLeod spent the next week juggling calls from other media outlets anxious for firsthand accounts.

Back at headquarters
in New York, the rival newsweeklies were working overtime, too. Newsweek Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, weekending in Woodstock, New York, heard Diana was injured around 9:30 p.m. and called President and Editor in Chief Richard Smith, who was on vacation in Vermont. They stopped the presses in five locations and ripped up 24 pages and the cover. "It wasn't cheap," Whitaker said, "but no one denies it was worth it." Time, which also goes to press on Saturday, reached the same conclusion, and both magazines hit the stands with Diana covers, virtually on schedule.