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Visibility Keeps the Influential Accountable

Media: Diana's death was caused by bad decisions and bad driving. Democracy needs a free press--paparazzi included.

September 02, 1997|JAMES LULL | James Lull is a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University and co-editor of "Media Scandals," to be published in October by Columbia University Press. E-mail:

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the other passengers was an accident caused by bad decisions and bad driving, not by the celebrity photographers following her and not by her fans who eagerly consume the images they produce.

Reports Monday that the limousine driver was under the influence of alcohol only make it more clear that it was persons inside the car who ultimately were responsible for what happened.

The emotional blaming of the media not only fails to recognize the role alcohol apparently played, but also does not account for the class-based relationships among persons in the car, which I believe contributed to the high-speed tragedy. Beyond this, holding the media responsible for this highly symbolic yet isolated incident misunderstands the absolute necessity for vigorous journalism--even media scandals--in democracies such as ours.

Imagine the pressure felt by the driver of the Mercedes as he attempted to whisk across town "the most recognizable person in the world" and--even more important--Dodi Fayed, whose father owns the Ritz Hotel, employer of the man behind the wheel. Though the photographers indeed may have been chasing more than following the limousine, some person or persons inside the car decided to take evasive action from the annoying entourage in the rear-view mirror.

We may never learn what really happened. But what's clear is that whoever made the decision to race that Mercedes into the tunnel was not a photographer. What's more, no one has alleged that the photographers or anyone else were pursuing the princess and her boyfriend with anything more dangerous than a 35-millimeter camera.

Let's hope that the hysteria about the media's role in the accident fades in the discussions that will follow. What must never be forgotten is the indisputable requirement of a free and vigorous press in the Western world's delicate system of checks and balances on social power.

The princess of Wales detested the intrusion of the media into her private life, but at the same time she cultivated that attention and benefited from it in many ways. So did her various humanitarian efforts, particularly the recent attempts to get the world to notice the harm caused by land mines in Angola, Bosnia and Cambodia.

Putting the unglamorous land mine issue on the world's moral agenda could only have been accomplished by combining the appeal of a celebrity spokesperson with the technological reach and impact of mass media.

The underlying factor in all of this is visibility, wanted and unwanted. When a princess or a president wants media attention, he or she gets it. But if we allow media celebrities--political figures, sports heroes, movie stars, billionaire businessmen, pop musicians and yes, members of the royal family--to limit the contexts in which they are viewed and pondered, then we would miss out on lots of important history. We'd have a very different view, for instance, of Richard Nixon, O.J. Simpson, Jim Bakker, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, even Hillary Rodham Clinton, among many others.

Media visibility holds accountable those who influence us by means of their political, economic or cultural power, which itself often is won through media exposure. The tragedy last Saturday night in Paris, emotionally wrenching as it is, must finally be understood in a much wider and more significant sense. While some revision of the rules regulating invasion of celebrities' privacy may be appropriate, the visibility and accountability that the news media guarantee--sometimes in quite unpleasant ways--is fundamental to democracy and must survive.

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