Privacy vs. appetite for gossip Paparazzi: Princess Diana's fatal car crash has raised international concerns about the role of photographers in the tabloids and mainstream news media.

Sun Journal

September 02, 1997|By Sandy Banisky and Mary Corey | Sandy Banisky and Mary Corey,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In London, motorists shouted profanities at photographers outside Buckingham Palace. At the Paris hospital where Princess Diana died early Sunday, the epithets were worse: "Murderers," medical staff shouted at the men and women with cameras outside. And at the tunnel where the fatal car crash occurred, angry mourners scrawled red graffiti labeling paparazzi cowards.

What had seemed a sort of game -- though an increasingly aggressive one -- changed early Sunday when probably the world's most photographed woman died after trying to elude paparazzi on motorcycles.

The role of photographers has set off an international debate about the press and privacy -- in the tabloids as well as mainstream media. But even those who believe the paparazzi must be reined in hold little hope of that happening.

The appetite for celebrity gossip is too great. As if to illustrate that point: Bild, Germany's largest-selling tabloid, published a front-page photograph yesterday of emergency crews struggling to free Diana after the fatal car crash.

While Paris police investigate -- holding seven photographers for questioning and examining their film -- the outcry has begun for stricter laws to control the aggressive free-lance photographers who earn a living off images of the rich and famous.

But others say that bashing the paparazzi -- and the tabloids where their work often appears -- may be knee-jerk and naive, considering the increasing if grudging respect these newspapers have earned in recent years and the often blurred line between tabloid and mainstream journalism.

"It's naturally tempting to blame the paparazzi because they're so flagrantly obnoxious," says Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "They have been scapegoat figures for a long time but the fact is they are catering to a mass appetite for these images. It's very likely that many of the same people who thrilled to those candid shots of Princess Di and her lover are now condemning the photographers and blaming them for her death."

Charles Eisendrath, director of the University of Michigan Journalism Fellows, agrees there's less distinction between low- and high-brow media. The National Enquirer breaks news on developments in the O. J. Simpson case. ABC News sends staff undercover to get an alleged story on tainted meat sold by Food Lion groceries.

He says the outrage over the actions of the paparazzi gives the mainstream press "a chance to rethink what we do."

The public "wouldn't be calling them bastards," he says, referring to the profanities shouted outside Buckingham Palace, "if there was any serious purpose to what they were doing. But there isn't. The reason they were calling them bastards is they may have been involved in someone's death and trying to get a buck for it."

France, he says, has some of the strictest press laws in the Western world -- none of which prevented the pursuit of Diana through public streets. Censorship, Eisendrath says, is not the answer. "I'm for self-policing."

On the day of the accident, Steve Coz, editor of the National Enquirer, said he had been offered photographs of a mortally injured Diana trapped in her car. The asking price was said to have been as much as $1 million. He refused to buy them and called on others to do likewise.

"The American press right now is upside down," Eisendrath says. "When the editor of the National Enquirer sounds like a statesman, you know there's a vacuum. It's time to talk about it, and if the discussion is led by the National Enquirer, so be it."

In Europe, however, editors were beginning to defend the rights of journalists.

"Criminalizing newspapers is a great error," editor Ezio Mauro said in a front-page editorial of the Italian newspaper La Republica.

British, German and Spanish newspapers also protested that they were only giving the public what it demanded. But many in the media said the accident would prompt serious reflection in news organizations everywhere.

"The ripples of what happened in that tunnel in Paris are going to be felt by journalists for a long time," says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Fellowships for Journalists at Harvard University.

He says calls for stricter regulations of the press are worrisome.

"Trying to define what kind of access a journalist should have, where and when is the quickest way to smother a journalist who is trying to find out information that clearly is in the public interest. The quickest way to smother a free press is to pass laws regulating it."

Russell Turiak -- New York's self-professed "stakeout artist" -- says the current paparazzi-bashing smacks of hypocrisy.

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