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Live Television Coverage Unites the World in a Good Cry

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A23

If the whole world was watching, then the whole world was probably weeping, too. The globally televised funeral of Princess Diana could well rank as the most widely seen event in history -- proving perhaps that nothing unites the world quite so effectively as grief.

Cameras showed people mourning in Hong Kong, in Canada, in Paris, and throughout the United States, a gathering via satellite in honor and memory of an internationally popular figure. Even watching at home, one felt like a participant in a story that now had achieved painful but definitive closure. Diana lived most of her adult life in the public eye, the heroine of a great nonfiction novel that now drew to a dramatic close.

And what a close -- a combination of pageantry and intimacy, of grandiose spectacle and the close-ups of those who mourned her, whether similarly famous or merely part of the ever-peeping public.

All the American broadcast networks, even Fox, offered extensive coverage yesterday, with big-name anchors like Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw signing on at 4 a.m. or earlier to report on events from London. Several cable channels had full-length coverage as well.

The British showed their customary aplomb at staging massive ceremonial occasions, and the American networks showed admirable and entirely uncharacteristic restraint in their approach, at least during the service from Westminster Abbey.

Before that, the anchors and reporters and as-yet-untold millions of viewers were up before dawn to watch the funeral procession make its way through London to the historic church. In addition to the broadcast networks and cable's CNN, which all aired most of the proceedings without commercials, viewers could see BBC coverage relayed by C-SPAN and by the Arts & Entertainment cable network, which rarely offers live news coverage of anything.

Pictures from inside Westminster Abbey, supplied by the BBC and ITN to American networks, were stunning, and many of the images inside and outside immensely poignant -- especially a card inscribed simply "Mummy" that rested among white flowers at the head of the casket. This gesture from William and Harry, the sons of Diana, was in its way more moving than all the shots of tearful mourners huddled outside the church.

The Words Won Out

And yet for all the eloquence of what was shown, it was the speech given by Diana's brother, Charles, Earl Spencer, that was probably the most memorable part of the ceremony. It was hardly a typical eulogy, though it included such observations as "All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity, a standard-bearer of the rights of the downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationalities."

The more surprising portions were those referring to the tabloid press that hounded Diana, and criticism of the British royal family, whose faces were never shown inside the church, per their request to the British networks. Spencer said Diana never needed a title to prove her worth -- her title was taken away from her upon her divorce from Prince Charles -- and he made a vow to help protect her sons from the royals as well as from the press.

On the subject of paparazzi and England's trashy tabloid papers, he said of his dead sister, "I don't think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media," and said he himself wondered "why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down."

Perhaps, he speculated, "genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum." The eight-minute speech was impeccably delivered and prompted applause when it was over from those inside the church as well as those outside.

Rather, Jennings and Brokaw managed to keep silent through almost all of the service itself. They had plenty of other opportunities to talk, before and after, and had plenty of cohorts and experts on royalty to help them. Probably the most helpful was Jeffrey Archer on NBC, while the least helpful was also on NBC: New Yorker Editor Tina Brown, mumbly and aloof.

A Week of Wallowing

The dignified ceremony and mostly dignified coverage climaxed a week of wallowing by the American networks that seemed excessive and often snide, with lots of wild speculation about how the popularity of Diana was somehow going to destroy the British monarchy, if not what was left of the empire itself. Reporters appeared gleeful in passing along each new criticism of the royal family, including the preposterous idea that they should parade their grief in public as a way of somehow satisfying their critics.

Reporters and commentators also tried to outdo one another in characterizing Diana as a Cinderella-like working-class waif with whom the lowly masses could identify, when in fact she was born into one of England's oldest aristocratic families.

Over and over, the British were castigated, essentially for having been insufficiently Americanized and for not following the new rules of emotional exhibitionism as dictated by Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael. When the queen made a nationally televised speech Friday, picked up by networks here, that quieted some of the clamor, reporters scoured the streets to find people who felt that this, too, was an insufficient display.

Apparently nothing less than uncontrollable weeping and the rending of garments would do.

ABC's coverage of the death of Diana began last Sunday with an incompatible trio on the screen: Jennings, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. They all appeared to hate one another, and Sawyer had little of value to contribute. She was nowhere to be seen in ABC's London coverage yesterday; apparently Walters had won a strategic victory. It made ABC's broadcast better, though Walters came across at times as too gabbily gossipy for such a solemn occasion.

Another odd touch by ABC: giving the screen over to stat sheets on certain of the participants when the time came for them to take part. These graphics were like baseball cards, or something out of "Wide World of Royalty." Tastelessly enough, Diana's older sister Sarah McCorquodale was identified with these phrases plastered on the screen: "Born 1955," "Former girlfriend of Prince Charles" and "Suffered from anorexia nervosa." And this while she read a poem in memory of her late sister.

Jennings had tacky moments as well -- such as when he referred to the 97-year-old Queen Mother Elizabeth as "a genteel doddering aunt" ("genteel" was one of the most overused words of the day) or when he noted that the ceremony would not touch upon "the more reckless or darker side of Diana." It hadn't been touched upon all week (if it existed at all); why would it be brought up now?

NBC and CBS competed to see which network could clutter the screen with the largest number of graphics. NBC had a large blue box that said "Live" (or, later, "Recorded Earlier") in the upper left corner, plus the obnoxious peacock logo in the lower right, plus, sometimes, logos identifying the source of the video (Sky TV, for example) in the lower left.

CBS devoted almost the bottom third of the screen to its graphic "CBS News Live Coverage -- Princess Diana's Funeral" along with some sort of ugly electronic bunting and not one but two representations of the trademark CBS eye.

The funeral of a cherished public figure hardly seems the time or place to advertise, but network promotion departments are almost vicious in their relentlessness.

Tabloid Titillation

Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric never quite seemed coordinated with one another on NBC, and Brokaw exhibited his usual impervious chilliness. Rather, on the other hand, is the anchor who's unafraid to get emotionally involved. His voice broke last Sunday when he concluded the special edition of "60 Minutes" devoted to Diana's death, and he appeared to be choking up again as he read closing comments yesterday morning, just before signing off at 10:58 a.m.

Among them:

"It is the nature of modern life that, by the time a great event has arrived, there is almost nothing left to be said about it. . . . What any American must say who has been here the past week is this: The great British people, who are more than allies to America, have been profoundly touched by the loss of their princess. Touched -- and changed."

At least these remarks seemed reasonable and not as hyperbolic as much of the commentary that aired on the networks during the days between the fatal car accident and the funeral. The race was to see who could attach the most extravagant social and political significance to the princess's death. When network newscasts ended their orgies of melodrama each night, tabloid shows like "Extra" and "American Journal" picked up the story and kept it going.

It was hard to tell the network newscasts from the tabloid tattlers.

Celebrity Requiem

As guests filed into Westminster Abbey before the service, cameras caught such superstars as Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and Sting, making this seem less a funeral for a princess than a gathering of pop stars. Singer George Michael wore a long frock coat, choosing to make a fashion statement at a memorial service. Elton John, who sang a rewritten version of "Candle in the Wind," was dressed, for him, relatively conservatively.

The simple point of the whole amazing international ordeal may be that the entire world felt it needed a good cry, and the ceremony and its coverage were certainly designed to inspire one. As John sang, the networks tried to turn his song into a music video, with misty shots of a happy Diana as people want to remember her. ABC News whipped up a new montage of Diana shots to conclude its coverage, accompanying them with emotionally charged orchestral music from, of all things, the film "Black Beauty." But corny as it may sound, it was strikingly well edited and quite effective.

One might have wondered as one watched, and watched, and watched, what alien beings from other worlds might have thought of the spectacle if they were watching, too. They might find it bizarre and outlandish. Or they might understand that someone much loved on her home planet had died and this is the way we global villagers convene, via television and satellite hookups, to demonstrate grief and affection.

It is impressive, and encouraging, that so many millions could stop and watch and listen in honor and memory of someone most of them had never met. Certainly it's one of the finer purposes to which the much-maligned and much-abused medium of television could ever be put.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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