Media Circus: A New Yorker to Di for

A review of the New Yorker's insta-response Princess Diana issue.

Published September 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the New Yorker special Diana issue was out by Friday morning -- just 24 hours before Tina Brown reported for duty as a commentator on NBC's special report on the princess's funeral. There is something absolutely right about Brown's position in the eye of the Diana hurricane. She is the perfect editor/commentator, and the new New Yorker the perfect venue, for Diana coverage.

Like the Princess of Wales, Brown was elevated to infuse new blood into a flagging dynasty and almost immediately reviled for it. She too was accused of sullying a great tradition -- whose very remoteness and irrelevance served as a link to past greatness -- with her popularizing and publicizing, her slick little haircut and her Hollywood pals. And though she doesn't draw the analogy herself in her own remembrance of the princess -- her first New Yorker byline -- the unprecedented Friday-morning rush to newsstands is an aptly symmetrical gesture from a magazine that, busily trying to update itself for a new age, has more in common with Di than People ever did.

The world, of course, would have soldiered on somehow for 72 hours without Clive James' love-struck encomium and Geoffrey Robertson's critique of British privacy law. But the rush to press itself, not the content, is the real tribute here. Like a squadron of fighter jets tipping its wings in sync at a military funeral, it is a balletic act by a giant, meant not only to convey respect but to show what the machine is capable of. To wit: getting copy out of Simon Schama and Salman Rushdie at the crack of a whip.

The special issue is really a hybrid, a half-dozen pieces shoehorned in among the usual departments and reviews. (David Remnick's profile of Don DeLillo -- discussing, just in time for the pre-"Underworld" publicity storm, the author's "half-hearted attempts to keep his distance from the mass-media machinery" -- is a fortunate, ironic coincidence.) Schama places Diana historically with renegade royal women such as Anne Boleyn, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, while identifying the British discomfort with the Fayeds as the country's latest attack of Suez-itis; Rushdie draws a parallel to J. G. Ballard's "Crash," credibly describing the circumstances of the accident as "a sublimated sexual assault"; but after a page or so of interesting ruminations on the camera as sexual surrogate, the essay peters out into the sort of obvious shame-on-us postmortem better left to writers -- like A. M. Rosenthal -- awful enough to do the topic justice.

For Brown's part, she recalls a lunch with the princess and Anna Wintour at the Four Seasons in June. Her use of the present-tense-with-dessert-and-coffee trope is peculiar even in a more celeb-friendly New Yorker -- Brown profiled Diana in 1985 for Vanity Fair and apparently picked up where she left off -- and yet it is the most interesting piece in the issue, simply because Brown is the closest thing to a peer likely to represent Di in print. Through her we get a seat at this First Brits' Club meeting, seeing Diana not as a repository of our cultural whatever but a "famous girlfriend," who assesses her life at a transition point and slips in the occasional dig: "Charles is not a leader. He's a follower. He was born to the wrong job."

After the third or fourth article, though, you start to smell the kippers. The issue is mainly a no-Yanks affair, and it points up sharply how American commentators, grasping for analogies to first Marilyn, then Elvis, then Kennedy, have strained a little too hard for empathy, even if they don't lack for sympathy. Load up Diana's bier with all the global iconography you want, her death is finally a British thing, and we wouldn't completely understand. Take Rushdie on culpability:

"If blood is on the hands of the photographers ... it is also on ours. What newspapers do you read? When you saw the pictures of Dodi and Diana cavorting together, did you say that's none of my business, and turn the page?"

When I saw the what in where? Sure, the royals may be a niche industry here, but I'll wager the typical Dallas Morning News subscriber was about as likely to breakfast over "DI AND SHEIK IN SEASIDE ROMP! P. 1, 2 & CENTRE SPREAD!" as he was to dine on bangers and mash; and at least until the accident, he probably considered her woes and peccadilloes on a par with maybe Julia Roberts'. The "New York" of the magazine today is wherever the media hang their laptops, and for this week anyway, we colonists are only tourists there.

But the loudest and most lasting statement the New Yorker's Friday blitz makes is about the magazine itself: It is a final repudiation of the genial timelessness of the pre-Brown era. And it is not a repudiation to dismiss easily. On the one hand, this pressed-for-time issue says little about Diana that hasn't been said in the rest of the media -- blame is assessed, privacy reassessed -- though it says it better. But on the other, anyone who knocks Brown's "Fleet Street values" owes an explanation of why a weekly publication shouldn't be, well, fleet. (I'm always puzzled, for example, by the praise of the old New Yorker's belated weighing in against the Vietnam War, however eloquent and well thought out: No one ever sent the Johnson administration flowers for reaching the same tardy conclusion.) Where the faceless Olympians of William Shawn's era deliberated, in patrician or paternalistic fashion (pick your camp) about what should be news, Brown's writers (who starting Sept. 22 will have mug shots on a contributors' page) know what is news and let God sort the rest out.

But the royal issue also feels like a strangely personal tribute, a gesture to a soul sister one feels almost invasive reading. Whether rushing it to the stands was an act of grace or hubris is hard to say. The point -- one of the dozens of homilies our sharp beaks have scraped from the bones of that Mercedes -- may be that at a certain level of celebrity, it is naive to try to separate the two.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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