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Media Madness

Diana, Murdoch, and the sum of us

By Bob Harris

A COUPLE WEEKS BACK I had some really harsh words about the public and media obsession with Diana Spencer. In short, I called it foolish and unhealthy. Naturally, I got a bunch of foaming hate mail. And then . . . damn.

I'm enough of a windbag that I usually enjoy I-told-you-sos, but not this time. Instead, let me say a few more sharp words about the media, and I don't mean the paparazzi or the tabloids. Those are easy targets.

I'm talking about the TV networks, who criticized the tabloids for exploitation, often at the very same moment showing pictures of Diana taken directly from the tabloids and breathlessly reporting the latest rumors. The doublethink is remarkable. Fox News' initial reporting was extremely critical of the paparazzi. Never mind that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch is the tabloid king.

NBC reporters yapped all that Sunday morning about how tabloids will do anything for money--and then during the football games, the ads for Dateline NBC showed footage of the mangled car two or even three times an hour while a voice-over promised the latest lurid pictures from Paris.

At one point, CNN, which suddenly replaced its normal Atlanta anchor with some second-string host with an English accent, went live to Murdoch's British SkyNews feed--which was at that moment reporting on American reaction to the accident, showing CNN footage of Yanks reacting to SkyNews pictures of the wreck. This was not actual news, but a report on a report on a report of people reacting to actual news.

In no way is network reporting inherently superior to the supermarket glossies. Just because you're a CBS or ABC reporter doing a story about pornography, that doesn't make it OK to show the centerfold from Hustler. It's still pornography, even in your hands.

Same thing with the tabloids.

If it walks like a vulture, and it talks like a vulture, what kind of bird do you suppose you've got?

OKAY. NOW THAT WE'RE DONE with that, let's dig a little deeper. (Warning: if you think "The Emperor's New Clothes" gave the King a bum rap, stop now.)

Here are a few more observations to stimulate even more blithering hate mail (although, if you take a breath, you'll realize I'm not dissing Diana, but the media circus and our complicity):

1. The market for intrusive photographs of Diana existed only because her fans were willing to buy them. Which means, unpleasant though it may be, many of the very same people lining the streets and weeping at her funeral were the ones whose money put a price on her head. Repeated exposure to media images should not be confused with actual intimacy. It is indeed a lonely world, but the fact remains: Newspaper readers and TV viewers did not know Diana. Neither did you or I. Diana's death is indeed a tragedy, but primarily for her sons, her family, and her friends. It's none of our business, and if more people had thought so all along, the woman would probably still be alive.

To whatever extent you feel sad about Diana Spencer, I hope you're also grieving for the other victims in the Paris wreck. (Until the driver's name was finally reported, I was beginning to wonder if he even had one.)

2. Diana's sudden media transformation from throne-shaking divorcée to canonized warrior princess has been downright Orwellian. Mere days ago, before the accident, Diana Spencer was a human being who did both good things and bad. She had affairs, enjoyed her immense wealth, and, like most celebrities, sometimes used the media for her own personal ends (unless you think all those high-fashion People photos were taken by CIA surveillance satellites).

Now, however, this eminently human being is being rapidly transformed into the focus of hero-worship by media shills eagerly citing the merest scrap of normality as proof of her magnificence. Yes, Diana was a good babysitter, she loved her kids, she felt bad about amputees and AIDS patients, and she opposed maiming people with land mines. All true. And all good for her. But is there anything in that list that isn't also true of almost everyone you know?

Remember who's beatifying her and why. These same reporters suddenly praising Diana's godliness are also the very ones who reveled in lurid images of her last hours on earth. The gentle urge to canonize is exploited every bit as eagerly as the morbid desire for bloodshow. If you want to remember Diana fondly, turn off the TV, put away the newspaper, and use your own memory. Otherwise, you're just feeding the same greedy machine that may have contributed directly to her death.

3. To prove to yourself once and for all that most media coverage has been emotionally driven, tabloid-style mythmaking, try the following mental exercise: Suppose for a moment that, after a failed marriage, Ted Kennedy (or Walter Cronkite or Rush Limbaugh or Bill Gates or anyone else) goes out for the evening with a glamorous new flame, dining at the very public Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. Suppose some paparazzi snap a few pictures, and so the couple decides to blow the joint in a hurry. Now imagine that Ted Kennedy (or whoever) disdains his seat belt as his drunken limo driver recklessly races photographers up Connecticut Avenue at over 100 mph until finally crashing in the tunnel that runs under Dupont Circle.

How many seconds would the media hold Ted Kennedy blameless for the accident? Think about it.

And then ask yourself if there's any objective, non-tabloid news reporting left in this country.

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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