Nov 1 1997

Visible and Invisible Caregivers

Why Princess Diana was

Reporters who covered the funeral of Britain’s Princess Diana were mystified by the mourners (e.g., New York Times, 9/7/97). “Why are you here?” one journalist after another asked the people adding bouquets to the mountainous flower pile outside the palace gates. Sikhs and Rastafarians, Londoners and tourists, women and men, gay and straight, responded in a similar way. The mantra became familiar: “We’re here because Diana was the only one we ever saw who cared.”

Now perhaps that wasn’t the only reason why the mourners massed in Kensington. Plenty has been said about the princess’ sex and class appeal. Fed a non-stop diet of details about her daily life by the media, it’s hardly surprising that the public felt familiar with Diana Spencer. But taking the grievers at their word, their answer sends a message to the media: Why was the Princess of Wales the only person the public felt they saw who seemed to them to care?

Spencer spoke on occasion about real things in people’s lives: the pressures of trying to live up to impossible standards of femininity; the punishing cost of trying, and failing, to satisfy someone else’s expectations of the perfect mother, wife, princess. But as the invaluable Internet service Women Leaders Online put it after her death (, 8/31/97), “Despite the glamour, Diana’s early life, her growth and experiences of adulthood and her work in human rights are a familiar road traveled by many women worldwide.” The media’s typical response to those who utter the dread words “self-esteem” (as she did) is derision. It is de rigeur for feminists to be accused of supporting “victimology” when they speak that way.

Welfare princess

As for her public caring–her visits to hospitals and hospices, her work on behalf of people with breast cancer and AIDS, her campaign to ban landmines–the princess may have been unique, but she was hardly alone. She just looked that way on television. In the wake of her death, commentators and news people eulogized Diana Spencer for caring about people and causes that mainstream media marginalize day after day.

Just 12 months earlier, the same press that waxed lyrical about Spencer’s single-mother heroism were vilifying U.S. mothers who survived on public aid. Reporters who’d criticized AFDC “dependents” found in the princess, who cost U.K. taxpayers millions annually, a welfare mom they could canonize. Syndicated columnist Norman Solomon (9/13/97) explains the contradiction tersely: “Generally, news reporting and punditry are respectful of the rich and disdainful of the poor.”

Some groups have used the media’s respect for the rich and famous to their own advantage. Targeting Kathie Lee Gifford worked for the National Labor Committee, which brought attention to sweatshop labor by revealing workplace abuses in the manufacture of the morning anchor’s own clothing line (Extra!, 9-10/96).

But it shouldn’t require a celebrity tie-in to make a crucial story newsworthy. ABC had access to BBC footage of Diana Spencer trekking gingerly across Angolan landmine fields. If they hadn’t, perhaps the network would still have reported on the meeting in Oslo in September at which delegates framed a global landmine ban. “The U.S. wants an exception to protect troops in Korea,” David Ensor noted (9/1/97), and Nightline hosted a discussion on the issue as the conference drew to a close (9/11/97). But both reports used footage from Spencer’s visit to Angola, and no other network touched the issue (Tyndall Weekly, 9/6/97). The networks shouldn’t need a princess–but in this case it seems they did.

Media flagellation

By now, the media flagellation-fest will have faded. For weeks, anchors and commentators blamed themselves, each other and the public for making a booming market out of potshot photos of those whose privacy is valuable enough to steal. Blaming the public for their fascination with the princess was a cheap shot: Media don’t offer people a full range of options. If the other channels were airing, say, the hate-filled rhetoric of Pat Buchanan, or esoteric “news” about Wall Street traders, it’s no wonder that the public chose to follow instead the ups and downs of the princess.

As for paparazzi culpability in the tragedy, French investigators may yet unearth proof that photographers caused the crash of the car carrying Spencer and her partner, Emad Mohammed Fayed (and their driver and bodyguard). But while pundits talked in outraged tones about what media institutions should do less (e.g., buying and selling invasive photographs), few commentators raised the question of what journalists might do more. It is not simply the spotlight that mainstream media train on celebrities that is the problem; it’s the shadow that they cast over everybody else.

“Hundreds of people who loved her but never met her must be crying like this,” lamented Clive James, an Australian/British TV personality (The New Yorker, 9/15/97). “For the first time I wish I had never met her at all. Then I might not have loved her, and would not feel like this. . . . But I did meet her, and I did love her.” The gushing might be almost touching if one could recall the last time that an influential media man metaphorically embraced a doer of good who wasn’t rich or royal or publicly adored.

There are plenty of sparkling, surprising women the public could be encouraged to fall in love with: women who step out of the place into which they were born and try to become forces for change. In a column on the subject (9/7/97), Kerry Lobel of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force drew attention to Adrienne Rich, the poet who turned down the president’s National Medal of the Arts (see Extra!, 9-10/97), and Dorothy Hadjys, the mother who turned to activism after her son, Allen Schindler, was brutally murdered by his shipmates because he was gay.

This May, I had the honor of meeting Peace Bicuna, a Rwandan nurse, who has dedicated her life to helping women who were raped and brutalized in that country’s ’94 genocide. Just breaking into the media are the Israeli mothers who’ve mobilized to protest their country’s continuing illegal occupation of Lebanon (New York Times, 9/19/97). Closer to Princess Diana’s home, scores of dockworkers’ wives have traded domestic life for touring the world–to publicize a years-old lockout that is devastating their hometown of Liverpool.

These activist women “who cared” have not been deemed very newsworthy.

Wall to wall

For all the public talk about “reining in” the paparazzi, it quickly became clear that what the mass media management actually wants is not less celebrity coverage, but more. According to Long Island’s Newsday (9/5/97), CBS News President Andrew Heyward issued a solemn apology to all CBS affiliates–for not going immediately to “wall-to-wall coverage” of the Diana story in its first hours. Heyward told Newsday, “We know we let the stations down,” and promised not to let it happen again.

Mort Zuckerman, owner of New York’s Daily News (along with U.S. News & World Report) announced the termination of veteran journalist and Daily News editor Pete Hamill. Newsday (9/5/97) reported that Zuckerman was unhappy with changes Hamill was making, in particular, “his efforts to reduce celebrity and gossip coverage.” Hamill’s last fight with management was reportedly when he argued against a crude, revealing shot of Princess Diana leaving a car. Hamill lost.

If reining in celebrity content doesn’t seem to be on the corporate media agenda, nor does filling out the cast of care-givers. When Mother Theresa’s heart gave out just five days after Princess Diana died, the other care-giver with media-bestowed world-class celebrity was gone. A call for new expressers-of-concern could be filled quickly and easily if media corporations wanted to tell their audiences the truth–that people with courage abound. Given the full picture of the rich array of activism that’s out there, the bereaved would still mourn the loss of their young princess or their veteran nun, but they might not feel, as they seemed to this September, that the only light in their lives had been blown out.

But in their choice of women to celebrate, mainstream media reveal their politics. Columnist Charles Krauthammer (Time, 9/22/97) explained approvingly: “A democratic public so enthralled by Di’s dresses, by Ellen’s sexual orientation, by Jackie’s everything has little time or energy for a strike or a riot, let alone a war.” The reverse is also true: the public might be emboldened to act if journalists spent less time directing their gaze upwards, and more time looking around.