Television made Princess Diana the world’s princess, a golden living legend. So it was fitting that television helped the world grieve on Saturday with funeral coverage from Westminster Abbey that was impressively graceful and restrained.
Live from London, television was the great equalizer. Rarely have divisions between classes, generations and cultures been so democratically balanced on TV.
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN, A&E;, PBS and local stations gave us funeral images of the reserved world of royal grief - trilling church hymns, stately pomp, stiff upper lip. They were set against the cathartic emotion of the Age of Rock, as Elton John cried a reworked “Candle in the Wind,” his ode to his dear friend Di. Few televised farewells have so seared the soul.
Television gave us royal stoicism - Diana’s ex-husband Prince Charles and sons William and Harry walking behind Diana’s coffin with bowed heads, as if withdrawn in private grief. In counterpoint it gave us the raw anguish of British commoners lining streets along the funeral route, weeping.
ABC offered simultaneous pictures of average folks mourning Diana in major cities around the world.
And in one of the most heartfelt moments ever seen on television, Diana’s brother Charles Spencer gave a eulogy excoriating the ever-present paparazzi who cursed Diana’s life and the media who wanted to “bring her down,” calling Diana “the most hunted person of the modern age.”
It’s likely Diana, a child of the TV age, dubbed the people’s princess, would have approved of this open, honest adieu. Hunted by the media, she also used television astutely. She knew that television would follow her radiant, telegenic presence to AIDS wards and slums, publicizing her favorite charitable causes. And follow it did, building her myth, making her an ever-larger target for tabloid sleaze.
If television helped kill Diana, fueling public lust for her life, it also helped canonize her on Saturday. By the end of funeral coverage some spin doctors were comparing Diana to England’s legendary King Arthur, the “once and future king.”
Yet even the royal family would approve television’s overall restraint. CBS was particularly reverential in its coverage, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw described the event in unusually hushed tones.
C-SPAN excelled with its feed from Britain’s BBC network, which offered the best running explanation of the funeral ceremony.
One false step on the networks’ part came during John’s song when NBC cut inappropriately to images of Diana in life. It was an intrusive, overly sentimental embellishment.
Yet television also let us pay our respects to the troubled yet compassionate woman we saw as a friend. That television at times overhyped Diana’s death in the past week is a fact. That it is an unsurpassed vehicle for global sharing, we should remember.