As of this writing, it’s still unclear which factors were most responsible for the deaths of Diana Spencer--Intoxication? Excessive speed? Poor highway design? But in the days after the Paris crash, the spotlight was focused most intently on the paparazzi and the tabloids.
There's no doubt that celebrity-stalking photographers engage in obnoxious, invasive and sometimes illegal behavior, and their alleged reckless pursuit may have contributed to the August 29 car wreck. Or that tabloid newspapers distill the worst impulses in journalism into a portable package. But there was more than a little hypocrisy in the mainstream media’s attacks on the lack of ethics of their down-market competitors: Over the past 15 years or so, the "respectable" media have turned celebrity gossip into an economic mainstay of their industry.
Think of Ted Koppel, devoting hours and hours of Nightline to true-crime superstars like O.J. Simpson and Tanya Harding, all the while wringing his hands to insist that he is a serious journalist (Extra!, 5-6/94, 5-6/95). Or the New York Times (4/17/91), out-tabloiding the tabloids by identifying the rape complainant in the William Kennedy Smith case, and peering through the window of her home to see what books were on her young daughter’s shelf.
"The large part of the paparazzi are not at all part of the press," Katharine Graham, part owner of the Washington Post Co., insisted on the Today show (9/1/97). "They’re out to make a buck with their camera, and they have no attachments. They want to sell it to the press. But most of the press either can’t afford to or doesn’t want to buy them.... I think if you start saying paparazzi and calling them the press, we’re making a bad mistake here."
Meanwhile, the issue of the Washington Post Co.’s Newsweek that was then on its way to subscribers (9/8/97) featured a two-page spread of paparazzi photos of Spencer and her boyfriend, Emad Fayed--including one taken of them through the window of their car on the night she died. Photos of Spencer and Fayed on vacation are captioned "Intimate moments" and "Beautiful, young and royal."
Even as they charged that the obsessive pursuit of celebrity contributed to Spencer’s death, mainstream media outlets continued to cash in on Diana-mania, filling TV with hours of repetitive "special tributes" and newsstands with "commemorative editions"--both largely filled with saccharine and embarrassing comments, like this observation from Time columnist Roger Rosenblatt (9/8/97): "And now this death of a young woman by whom the world had remained transfixed from the moment she first appeared before it, whose name contained the shadow of her end: Princess Di."
It was not always this way. Prior to the media merger wave of the mid-1980s and demands by network TV’s new owners that news divisions turn a profit, celebrity coverage was not a large portion of the mainstream news diet. In 1982, when another celebrated princess, Monaco’s Grace Kelly, died in a car accident, the event received only 24 minutes on nightly network newscasts over the next five weekdays (9/14-17/82, 9/20/82), notwithstanding her Hollywood career and her celebrated marriage.
When John Lennon, one of the central figures of his generation, was murdered outside his New York City home in 1980, 59 minutes were devoted to the story over the next five weekdays (12/9-12/80, 12/15/80). Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 got only 31 minutes of coverage (8/16-19/77, 8/22/77).
Diana Spencer’s five-weekday total on nightly network newscasts (9/1/97-9/5/97): 197 minutes.*
That’s almost twice the coverage given to Presley, Lennon and Kelly combined. It’s roughly two-thirds of all the nightly network news coverage in the first week of September--a week that also included serious developments in the Middle East, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, the death of Mother Teresa, the release of a national study on the harmful diets of American kids, and breaking news in the White House fundraising scandal. Despite the praise given to Spencer for drawing attention to the campaign to ban landmines, negotiations in Norway intended to do just that were covered by only one network nightly newscast (ABC, 9/1/97).
It’s true that Spencer’s death cannot be compared to the other celebrity deaths--not because her political, social or cultural impact was greater (especially for Americans), but because no individual’s life has been so intensely mass-marketed as a soap opera. People reacted to her death as though they knew her because the saturation coverage gave people the illusion that they did know her. "My father died eight years ago," said a London taxi driver (AP, 9/8/97). "And I didn’t feel about that the way I feel now." As Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen note in Wizards of Media Oz, "Reverence for celebrities is the flip side of tacit contempt for 'average' people."
Questions remain to be answered about the paparazzi’s impact on that Paris car accident. But it’s more important to question the impact on our society of the mainstream media’s relentless promotion of the rich and famous.
*Tyndall Weekly newsletter (9/6/97).