The media explain themselves Press: Whether claiming friendship, understanding or some dark inner knowledge, reporter types step into the flood of grief.

September 06, 1997|By Laura Lippman and Holly Selby | Laura Lippman and Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A princess has died, and millions are mourning her. From these simple facts, hundreds of thousands of words and pictures have been generated by the mass media. Yet most haven't told us much more than that.

In the past week, genuine grief has collided with synthetic searches for meaning, solipsism has substituted for insight. Famous for being famous, Princess Diana in death has become the vessel for anything journalists and pundits wish to project on her -- fashion, feminism, even a call for the fall of the House of Windsor.

The rush to offer deeper meaning is understandable. In life, Diana received media attention as few ever have. Who else could command coverage from the Washington Post -- and the National Enquirer? Now her death has triggered something real -- and extraordinary. Two million people will pour into the streets of London today, expressing a grief that has little to do with the world of celebrities interviewing celebrities. It is phenomenal. And phenomenons, by definition, are not easy to explain.

Yet they keep trying. Every day, another candidate emerges for the most surreal media moment.

There's Barbara Walters, confessing her friendship with the dead Diana and brandishing a letter to prove it. Jerry Lewis, dedicating his annual telethon to the princess. The CNN reporter who plucked a piece of poetry from the overnight shrine at Buckingham Palace to prove that Diana had stirred commoners to poetic flights?

Alas, the fragment was the work of W.H. Auden.

Perhaps the strangest sight was George Clooney sitting down with NBC's Maria Shriver to reiterate his hatred of tabloid-style journalism in any medium. It was a serious, seemingly sincere exchange.

Yet it was also Batman, chatting with Mr. Freeze's wife, herself a member of America's own Royal Family and a victim of paparazzi pursuit.

The New York Times' Walter Goodman, who wrote a scathing account of the initial television coverage of Diana's death, makes a distinction between what real people feel and what certain media types profess to feel:

"Wherever there is genuine emotion, there are people ready to exploit it. ... Everyone's getting in line to say they knew Diana. Coverage of celebrities has become coverage of the person who knew the celebrity."

Consider:

Novelist Joyce Maynard, who tweaked pop culture sensibilities so memorably in "To Die For," renumerates on National Public Radio the ways in which her life mirrors Diana's.

ABC's Walters, who has fought against a "soft" reputation for years because of her fawning celebrity interviews, ends up admitting that she does, in fact, not draw too strict a line between interview subjects and friends.

Perhaps some of the media's hyper-reaction to Diana's death can be chalked up to guilt and self-flagellation.

For the first 24 hours after the crash, "the media" was assigned the blame for Diana's death. And the public was not so willing to accept oft-repeated distinctions between "legitimate" news and tabloids.

Some media watchers worry the princess' death will be used as a rallying call to place restrictions on the press.

"She is such an international image and such a powerful figure that there are many people who would love to use it as a way to restrict the press," says Albert Scardino, a former New York Times reporter who now writes frequently on the media from London.

"This could well be the bookend of the era that started with Watergate," Scardino says, pointing out that Watergate catalyzed a move toward greater protections for the public's right to know.

More germane, perhaps, is the question of how members of the media regulate their own behavior -- or don't. If the quality of

coverage is debatable, then what about the quantity?

"I don't think this is a situation where the media has created the spectacle," says David Mazzarella, editor of USA Today. "I think who she is and what people felt about her and the circumstances of her death" have fueled a genuine outpouring of emotion.

"I think this was a case where the celebrity had a certain hold on people and that's what burst when she died."

The day after Diana's death, readers checked USA Today Online's Web page 16 million times, says Chris Fruitrich, the site's deputy editor. That's 5 million more than typical.

USA Today also offered online readers a chance to record their thoughts about Princess Diana's death.

In three days, more than 13,000 letters had been posted. The next highest number of responses had been 6,000 letters posted over seven days.

Visitors expressed feelings ranging from rage at the paparazzi to deep grief. Others aired views on how the princess' funeral should be conducted, or worried about the young princes.

"The interesting thing was that we [ask for response] on a fairly regular basis, and I would say 90 to 95 percent of responses come from within the United States," Fruitrich says. "On this one, they are coming from all over the world -- Australia, Indonesia, Venezuela."

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