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A 'Masterpiece Theatre' of Pomp and Puff

Viewers tuning in to funeral are subjected to archaism mixed with tears and soft footage. From the American TV anchors, overstatement prevails.

September 07, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Of course they'll title it the funeral of the century.

Hillary Rodham Clinton mingled with Britain's stiffest upper lips. We sent our own royalty too, with Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and other sovereigns of the airwaves pouring into London last week and bonging like Big Ben in advance of Saturday's memorably regal farewell to Princess Diana.

It was quite a show.

If your taste in funerals runs to "Masterpiece Theatre," this one was for you. Sporting rich tradition and royals with pomp and protocol coursing through their veins, Diana's funeral was aired live on more than a dozen outlets in Los Angeles, then available on tape later in the morning.

Television itself seemed in mourning during the lengthy procession and service inside historic Westminster Abbey.

Those who tuned in the coverage found TV anchors, reporters and commentators draped in black, their grieving faces at half-staff, their words falling like tears as Diana's funeral cortege edged across London in a scene of heavy solemnity.

"The flowers are lilies," noted ABC's tremorous Barbara Walters, who has made getting people to cry her life's work.

Epic funerals do strange things to people. This one brought out the archaic in CNN anchor Bernard Shaw: "This is such a sad occasion, would that we not be here to cover this, but be here we must." And brought out the ponderous poet in Rather, who kept hoisting himself like the Union Jack: "Through the arch, and onward they march." And brought out the overstatement in just about everyone. Working for ABC, Diana biographer Andrew Morton said about her death in Paris: "I find it one of the most awful tragedies of the late 20th century, if not the greatest." Veterans of the Balkans, the Middle East and other hot spots might disagree. Why, even Mother Teresa's death might rival Diana's.

There were, indeed, some indelible sights Saturday, none more so than red-coated Welsh Guardsmen carrying Diana's casket inside Westminster, their steps clacking on the black-and-white floor, organ music and choir voices resonating in the background. You didn't have to be an Anglophile to feel the emotional steam. Moreover, CBS and NBC showed that they knew how to jerk tears when they ran soft, fuzzy, slow-mo footage of Diana as Elton John played and sang the reworked "Candle in the Wind." While departing from traditional news practice, it was in keeping with newscasters presenting even the soberest events as a kind of entertainment.

And once again, you heard emotional speeches by reporters and anchors about Diana being "the people's princess," "our princess" and "our queen of hearts."

Say what? Well, you know, being a spoilsport is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

I regret the catastrophic Paris crash and its fatalities. Diana seemed to be a nice person, and what a shame that she'll now remain 36 forever. But she wasn't my princess. She wasn't my princess of hearts. I didn't love her. In fact, until she died, I never ran into anyone who did. Honestly, no one.

What is this sainthood stuff, anyway? She was just a stylish, pretty celebrity and survivor of royal wars who many of us felt was prominent in far too many newscasts. You know, too much attention to her and other celebrities, too little to events and issues that affect our lives in more meaningful ways.

How ironic that it was Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, who set the record straight Saturday in a stunning eulogy that was less euphemistic and more honest than most of the coverage of his sister's death. She shouldn't be canonized or "seen as a saint," he said. Unfortunately, his sage words come too late. The real Diana, with the flaws and blemishes that her brother candidly recalled with affection, already has been expunged by the wattage of her gleaming legend.

Who wouldn't be amazed by the depth of genuine feeling about Diana in England on Saturday? It was evident on the faces and in the tears of throngs along the cortege route, in London's Hyde Park and elsewhere. Much more boggling, though, is the attention that has been given her death in the U.S., another case of media telling the public what to think about, then using the interest they've created to justify their inflated coverage.

A spate of locals pursued the Diana story across the sea. Talk about skewed priorities. I mean, you must be kidding. Los Angeles stations that won't spend a dime to send someone to Sacramento to cover California government have jetted reporters and camera crews to Paris and London for post-mortems on Diana, princess of Wales?

Yet, naturally, not to Calcutta to cover the death of Mother Teresa. She doesn't merit that spotlight, of course, because she was no regular on "Entertainment Tonight." No interest. She'd hung around too long with lepers and the poor.

Many covering this story also have sought mightily to create or increase sympathy for Diana's two sons. Losing their mother is a tragedy for them, of course, and you wondered what emotions simmered beneath the stoniness they displayed during the funeral. But to me, they're as much abstractions as the other royals. I feel much worse for motherless, fatherless and parentless kids who are virtually alone in the world and have no support systems at all. Let's direct our compassion toward them.

The funeral and the Brits' response to it were quite a spectacle. But even more awesome was the crush of TV treating Diana's life and death as if they were biblical in size and she had parted the Red Sea.

"We have never seen anything quite like it," Brokaw said when Saturday's event ended. And that includes the media coverage.

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