Doing Good In Camera's Harsh Eye
WASHINGTON — They generated some the most powerful images of compassion in the 20th century. Between them, the Princess of Wales - one of the most titled and elegant woman in the world - and Mother Theresa - known in poor neighborhoods of Calcutta simply as "Mother" - raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charities and other good works.
In using their fame to do good, the two most recognized women on the planet learned to channel the enormous power of the news media. But that enormous power sometimes turned its withering skepticism on them as well, generating deep controversy over how the media use celebrities and how celebrities use the press.
At Diana's funeral service Saturday, Earl Spencer noted his sister's status as "standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden." In berating the media's "permanent quest to bring her down," he said: "My ... only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum."
The news media have been much gentler with Mother Theresa, although in the past few years she has faced a more aggressive criticism, beginning with the 1994 British television documentary, "Hell's Angel." The broadcast, which prompted a firestorm of protest from the public, blasted the quality of health care she provided in her clinics, as well as her fund-raising techniques and her campaign against population control.
Together, Mother Theresa and "the people's princess" raised vast sums in support of humanitarian causes, including help for the homeless, the disabled, and victims of ancient and modern plagues.
Closets of gowns and three saris
When the princess touched a leper or hugged an infant diagnosed with AIDS, the world took note - and phalanxes of photographers made sure it did. Leaders of some 100 charities the princess supported until her 1996 divorce said her patronage had been worth millions. Her cast-off ball gowns raised $3.3 million for charities at a recent auction, in part because many people could remember where she had worn them.
Mother Theresa owned three coarse cotton saris, once valued at $1 apiece, and a pair of sandals. The Macedonian-born Roman Catholic nun had been sifting the slums of Calcutta for abandoned children 15 years before Diana Spencer was born. But the world knew nothing of her work until a 1969 BBC television documentary dubbed her the "saint of the gutters." She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and the religious order of women she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, now includes more than 500 missions in 100 countries.
For humanitarian groups, an endorsement from media stars of their magnitude held immense value.
"Anyone who can have the impact of a Mother Theresa or a Princess Diana is to be applauded in their efforts. But there's no one like either of them on the horizon," says Robert Seiple of World Vision, the world's largest privately funded Christian relief organization. "Their work will have to be replaced by a host of other individuals and organizations."
"It took 50 years of faithful service to make a Mother Theresa. She worked with those who were the most marginalized in a place where the odds were stacked against her. It took staying power and purity of spirit. Princess Diana was just beginning, and it's probably not fair to compare them," he adds.
By her own account in a 1995 televised interview, Diana blamed "abusive" press interest for undermining her marriage to the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, but insisted that she could use the press to build a new role for herself as an ambassador for Britain.
"As I have all this media interest, let's not just sit in this country and be battered by it.... When I go abroad, we've got 60 to 90 photographers, just from this country, coming with me, so let's use it in a productive way, to help this country.... Someone's got to go out there and love people and show it," she said.
Her 1997 visits to victims of land mines in Angola and Bosnia, with photographers in tow, put the issue of a ban back on the political agenda.
Opponents warn that her clout could prove to be stronger after her tragic death, and that the proposal to ban land mines, now being drafted in Oslo by 87 nations, could come to be known as the "Princess Diana Memorial Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban."
Diana's passing after an Aug. 31 car chase in a Paris tunnel has already spurred calls for new guidelines to govern the behavior of the press and to protect the private lives of celebrities. The last minutes of her life were a flight from paparazzi eager to feed a public frenzy for details of her private life.
Diana's brother on Saturday described her as "the most hunted person of the modern age" and blamed the news media for her death.
In response to such criticism, media defenders point out that celebrities also use the press for their own purposes, adding that Diana had been adept at leaking information about her private life when it suited her.
"People equate an aggressive press with criminal behavior. People don't understand that an unfettered press has a tremendous positive role to play in the functioning of a democracy, and without it they themselves would have fewer freedoms," says Joe Urschel, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Newseum in Washington, created to improve the public's understanding of how the press operates. "Nonetheless, there's a responsibility in the press to address their fallen image and arrest it before it gets worse."
A 'symbiotic' relationship
"There's a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the press: One needs the other, and one tries to control the other. The subject tries to control the photographer, but it only fuels interest in getting photos that are not staged. The more intensely you play that game, the more aggressively it is played when you try to control information that so many people are interested in. Princess Diana was very good at that game," Mr. Urschel adds.
"What many celebrities want is for us to get back to just writing up their press releases, as we did in the 1940s. But we're better than that now," said Chuck Conconi of Washingtonian magazine, speaking to a Newseum panel audience on Saturday.
Meanwhile, nine photographers and a motorcyclist are under investigation by French police for their role in the Paris crash. None have been charged.