The Princess of Peace and the Media War

Princess Diana, who turned her attention in her latter years to promoting peace, ironically became the latest victim of a new kind of war -- the media war. The paparazzi chasing her, the publications underwriting their aggressive tactics, as well as the public mesmerized by her mythic storybook lifestyle are all part of the same dynamic, feeding on -- and feeding off -- larger unseen forces.For the media, and like the media, Princess Diana had become in writer Larry Gelbart's phrase, a "weapon of mass distraction." She was caught in a deadly media embrace at a time when too much of what passes for journalism has been transformed into sensation-mongering that justifies itself in terms of merely giving the public what it wants -- as if it plays no role in creating tastes or stimulating demand. Diana was the ultimate symbol of the media-ification of our culture, generating even higher ratings in death than she did in life. But you can be certain: we will be inundated with more Dianaization of the airwaves. When a formula works, unfortunately, it is milked -- to death.This media war is not being fought with guns but with market research and corporate strategies that prize entertainment more than information, diversion more than democracy, seduction more than education. Celebrities are used to endorse products and services, and quickly packaged as products themselves. Increasingly hyper-competitive media executives speak in the language of war, of "bombarding" audiences, "targeting" markets, "capturing" grosses, "killing" the competition and, always, "winning." It is no wonder that some news organizations even call their employees "troops." This high tech war "deploys" technologies whose goal, in part, is to expand, domestically and globally, an entertainment economy now valued, in the United States alone, at $150 billion dollars a year. As the companies duel, countries, communities and even individuals find themselves in the crossfire. The paparazzi are the shock troops. But whose bidding do these media mercenaries do? You don't see the publisher of the National Inquirer, or tabloid mogul Rupert Murdoch, chasing limos in the Paris night. They don't get their own hands dirty with the dirty work of media-exploitation. It is ironic that in the last few years Diana herself put her energies into protesting war and comforting its victims. I met her two years ago in Italy at Luciano Pavarotti's concert to benefit the youngest casualties of the war in Bosnia. She sat through the whole show and spoke with the artists and the peace campaigners personally. Soon afterwards, she hooked up with the Red Cross to champion a campaign against the menace of landmines. She tried to use her celebrity for good, courting coverage of an issue that has been all but buried along with its blown-up body parts. Unfortunately, like with so many issues, there were more images than information about the deeper problem -- who profits from the misery. Diana was sincere, even if much of the media coverage on the causes she cared about wasn't. She was treated as a symbolic messenger of mercy, not as someone with substantive commentary and deeply held passions. This is a deeply institutionalized problem, bigger than the foibles of the paparazzi. As with any war, the first casualty is the truth. Paradoxically, one effect -- intentional or not -- of this media war is the under-informing of the public while being inundated with more information than it can possibly absorb. Think of all the news we are missing now as the media cashes in on a tragedy partly of its own making. "We're more concerned with who is sleeping with whom, and who is having a baby," Larry Gelbart complained to the Los Angeles Times. "The real problems in America and in the world go unnoticed while the prurient side of us is appealed to."Fortunately -- and this is something I think Diana would have appreciated -- some leading journalists are now trying to reform their own industry. "Many journalists feel a sense of lost purpose...when serious journalistic organizations drift towards opinion, infotainment and sensation out of balance with the news," said a recent statement signed by 28 leading journalists associated with Harvard's Nieman Foundation. In October, a thousand journalists are expected at a Media and Democracy Congress in New York to formulate strategies to fight media practices like the ones that may have contributed to Diana's death.And in England, Diana's home and the land that gave us tabloid journalism, a summer institute was just held by leading war correspondents who, perhaps in the spirit of Diana's work, are forging a new role -- as peace reporters. So out of this tragedy and the questions its raises about media irresponsibility may come a renewal of journalistic ethics. If so, Diana will not have died in vain.Danny Schechter's media adventure story, "The More You Watch, The Less You Know," will be published in September by Seven Stories Press. He will be a participant at the Media & Democracy Congress to be held at the Great Hall in Cooper Union in New York City, October 16-19. For more information call 415-284-1420.

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