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A Street artist's memorial to Princess Diana in New York
Passersby look at a street artist's memorial to Princess Diana in lower Manhattan in New York. (Reuters)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 1997; Page D01


That was the banner headline in the New York Daily News, referring to the paparazzi who swarmed over Princess Diana's wrecked car.

But above the logo, the paper proclaimed: "12 Pages on Princess Di."

Plenty of news organizations seem a little ghoulish themselves after five straight days of saturation coverage, much of it maudlin and overbearing and breathtakingly excessive. Everyone -- elite newspapers and lowly tabloids, newsmagazines rushing out special issues, superstar anchors camped out in London, local stations grabbing the grieving at the British Embassy, talk show hosts talking about nothing else -- is feasting on the aftermath of Diana's death. It is an O.J.-like wave that swamps all else in its path, building on itself as it roars toward Saturday's funeral.

"HOUNDING DIANA: What's Needed -- New Laws or Common Decency?" MSNBC asks, without apparent irony, in a telephone call-in poll. This came a day after a poll called "Death of Diana -- Who's to Blame?"

"Who will be blamed for Diana's death?" asks Pat Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire."

A worldwide backlash that initially focused on the in-your-face tactics of the paparazzi has now spread to the media in general. Local reporters who've never done a royalty story in their lives say they've been insulted when seeking person-on-the-street interviews about Diana. The day after Diana's death, construction workers in New Zealand attacked a female newspaper photographer who arrived to cover an accident. "Didn't you do enough killing someone yesterday?" one said.

"Normal" people should be "grossed out and sickened" by the sight of "human tragedy reduced to cheap melodrama," a Wall Street Journal editorial declared.

"If I were running a magazine, I too would find it an irresistible typhoon," said former New York Magazine editor Kurt Andersen. "But what is there to say on the fifth, sixth or seventh day? I find my own boredom level being reached pretty quickly. Maybe it's because I'm not female or I'm not British. But I just don't get the interest. When an editor said to me the other day, `This is the most important event since John F. Kennedy was assassinated,' it really gets into the realm of the insane."

Andersen now writes for the New Yorker, which will feature reminiscences of Diana by its British editor, Tina Brown, in a special issue due out today.

To be sure, the volume of coverage comes as little surprise. Journalists pounce on tragedy. When a plane goes down or a building is blown up, small armies of reporters arrive. Start with the death of a glamorous princess, throw in the role of the pursuing photographers and the drunk driver and you've instantly achieved critical mass.

But the sheer level of spectacle is something else. Barbara Walters and Larry King reflecting on their encounters with the princess. "She felt comfortable with People," former People editor Lanny Jones told his successor, Carol Wallace, recalling his 1994 off-the-record tea at Kensington Palace.

"I believe that this woman was one of the most significant women of our time," Geraldo Rivera told viewers.

This is one story in which normally stoic anchors have shown plenty of emotion. "Another startling development in this appalling story," a reporter for Britain's ITN said in a feed picked up by MSNBC.

Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said she found the media "canonization" of Diana less than professional. While it's fine for admirers to grieve openly for the princess, she said, "I am really troubled by these network news people jumping into the fray and taking the same position."

Celebrities have also blanketed the airwaves, seizing upon the tragedy to complain about overly aggressive photographers: Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Sylvester Stallone, Luciano Pavarotti. Fran Drescher and Whoopi Goldberg joined the chorus on "Larry King Live." Maria Shriver did a segment on paparazzi for "Dateline NBC," never mentioning that she and her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have frequently been pursued by breathless photographers. Even Madonna, who peddled a book of nude photographs of herself, says that aggressive lensmen have invaded her privacy.

Journalists have been endlessly creative in supplying new angles. USA Today did a cover story on Great Brington, the sleepy English village where Diana will be buried. The Sun, a London tabloid, yesterday quoted a Paris jeweler as saying he created a $200,000 diamond ring that Diana's companion, Dodi Fayed, gave her at their last dinner. WCBS radio in New York found a New Jersey couple who hired Diana as a London babysitter and have now been invited to the funeral.

Other "sidebar" subjects have included the reaction of the Ice Queen (as yesterday's Daily News dubbed Elizabeth), the French legal system, the fate of Diana's two sons, the fate of Other Woman Camilla Parker Bowles, the monarchy's future, Di's last words to Cindy Crawford, the funeral route, Hillary Rodham Clinton's funeral trip, whether Elton John will sing at the funeral, Di Web sites, Di books, who'll play Di in the docudramas and yadda yadda yadda. MSNBC interviewed a woman organizing a boycott of the supermarket tabloids. (Number of Diana stories in yesterday's Washington Post: 12.)

Still, the argument goes, the media are giving people what they want.

"I don't think we've gone overboard yet," said Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor. "She was a magical person. She touched a chord around the world. . . . Time magazine is selling out everywhere." Traveling in his native Louisiana, Isaacson says he's seen signs in diners: "Goodbye Di. We'll Pray for You."

The "Death of a Princess" logos were still plastered across the local stations yesterday as they interviewed a Washington area man who is heading for the funeral. "People here are furious that the royals haven't shown more remorse," reporter Lucrezia Cuen told WJLA-TV viewers from London. And, she added: "Many people are starting to blame Prince Charles for Diana's death, saying if he'd only loved her, this never would have happened."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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