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Web Posted: September 3, 2020

Princess Diana
    No sooner had word of the death of Princess Diana echoed beyond the left bank of Paris that an outpouring of invective began against that group of frenzied, celebrity-chasing photographers known as paparazzi. It was reported that Diana, boyfriend Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henry Paul, were somehow victims of camera-wielding shutterbugs chasing their Mercedes Benz S-280 on motorcycles in some kind of high speed case more appropriate to THE DUKES OF HAGGARD rather than the Champs Elysees. Along with the public displays of grief and the near-voyeuristic reporting of the "Death of a Princess" by mainstream media, there were spirited denunciations of the paparazzi and a sudden oozing of journalistic and political concern that these "parasites" feeding off celebrity cache had "gone too far" in the pursuit of their gutter-dragging craft. The cliche of the day was once again the "irresponsible" exercise of journalistic freedom, and the pressing need for "action."

   There oughta' be a law, right?

    One of Diana's relatives bluntly proclaimed that the paparazzi, who feasted off the notoriety of the former Princess of Wales like so many vultures were directly responsible for her death. Celebrities sounded the tocsin to abolish or at least curb the paparazzi, by law if necessary. Hyperbole ruled in both the reported "outpouring of grief" (scene: lines outside the British Embassy in Washington of people standing patiently for hours to sign one of the four "condolence" books), and the vilifications of celebrity-chasing camera freaks. Sir Peter Ustinov, no stranger to fame, charged that the paparazzi's "uncontrolled photography is one of the blights of our time." A pumped-up Sylvester Stallone -- the guy who used to strut through rough neighborhoods and kicked his share of heavyweight butt, at least in the movies, branded them as "stalkers, legalized stalkers." CNN reported a full-blown "backlash against press photographers," including one incident in New Zealand where construction workers attacked a female photographer who was taking pictures of an industrial accident.

   "Didn't you do enough, killing someone yesterday?," the workers shouted. The woman's camera was smashed, and she suffered a trip to the hospital for neck and shoulder injuries and bruises to her face.

   Above the wall in the Paris roadway tunnel where the Mercedes crashed (at over 120 mph), some yokel had whipped out his trusty can of spray paint to impart his latest low- brow wisdom to the world. "Paparazzi Cowardly Murderers."

    People have always enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with freedom of the press, and other civil liberties. They also seem to be highly duplicitous when it comes to "the rage of the day," currently the near-unanimous denunciation of paparazzi, while gazing in slack-jawed wonder as the TV news shows the remains of the demolished Mercedes being hauled away.

   How many of those soccer moms who are now mourning Princess Diana as if she were the next door neighbor, ever did anything to promote or defend the causes she worked on so passionately? And how many folks regularly guzzle a steady diet of sleazoid afternoon TV shows ("My Daughter Is An Out-Of-Control Punk Rocker Lesbian With Tattoos"), or gingerly sequester a copy of some tabloid into the pile of groceries at the check-out counter? Reading the sensation rags and immersing your consciousness in a world of fad diets and celebrity voyeurism is like admitting that you voted for Richard Nixon; we all deny it, but somebody must be doing it, right?

    A little more than 72-hours after Diana's death, we're beginning to get the first DT's from our latest cultural bender denouncing paparazzi and yapping about "irresponsible" freedom of the press. It appears that the driver of the ill-fated Mercedes was legally drunk, with an alcohol blood level the equivalent of a six-pack and a couple of glasses of wine, or approximately nine shots of Jack Daniels or Black Label, which ever happens to be your preference. Not exactly road worthy. And that phalanx of high-speed paparazzi may have been something else. The media, closing ranks to elevate itself over the Fleet Street papers and tabloids, still admits that "news photographers" may have been present as well. There's a thin line between paparazzi (a term celebrated in Frederico Fellini's outrageous film, LA DOLCE VITA.) and "news photographers," isn't it?

"Politicians and religious leaders denounced the Shutterbugs, but they plunked down a nickel for the four-star Final Edition. Maybe they also patronized some of the taboo services the Shutterbugs brought to public light in stark, garish and revealing photographs."
While Diana's unfortunate death is being elevated to the status of a media spectacle, it is also proving to be the latest opportunity for another round of vigorous drop-kicking directed at freedom of the press and the wider concept of free expression inherent in the First Amendment. Many European countries do not have the equivalent of a First Amendment, and fine cause to limit free expression by conjuring the usual platitudes about "security, "public order," or "responsible speech." When some politician or clergy takes the podium and begins appealing to such phrases, run, don't walk, to the nearest exit. In Germany, Helmut Kohl's government has become adroit at trying to censor everything from the internet to neo-nazi's and Scientologists. It's also illegal to "profane" the person of one Jesus Christ. Across the channel in Britain, the notorious Blasphemy Laws have been used to squelch any speech which "insults" J.C. or the Church of England; ever since Salman Rushidie's novel THE SATANIC VERSES appeared, Moslems, Jews and non-Anglican Christians have been clamoring to have their particular ideology protected by the Blasphemy statutes.

    Over fifty years ago, a young Orson Welles and the Mercury Radio Theater shocked Americans with a radio broadcast of H.G. Well's science fiction classic WAR OF THE WORLDS. In less than an hour, fictional Martians managed to blast off from the red planet, land on earth , construct giant marauding war machines, annihilate a few army divisions, cross the length of New Jersey (no mean feat then, as now) and take on New York City and its finest. As subsequent studies revealed, many people credulously believed the broadcast -- something which shocked Welles, the cast and play writer Howard Koch -- and the usual assemblage of yokels, not having access in that era to spray paint, called for government enquiries and legislation. Writer Dorothy Thompson denounced both the credulity of the audience, and the hysteria for censorship.

   We seem to have a near-instinctive penchant for finding excuses to limit, constrain or abolish the very civil liberties we enjoy. There always seems to be an excuse.

    Diana's death is not the first time photographers have been at the center of controversy. Photographs have been potent medium ever since Louis Daguerre, a scene painter for the French opera, perfected a way of obtaining fixed pictures on metal plates by the interaction of sunlight and chemicals. Photographs told a story, recorded a history and often chronicled events some people didn't always like.

    The photographic medium eventually invaded print journalism. Through the 1930s and 40s, newspapers, locked in their periodic circulation wars, enlisted "shutterbugs" to capture the most evocative and daring images they might find. One of them, Arthur Fellig, excelled beyond the usual level of sensationalism, and managed to infuse his photographs with a dramatic sense of stark artistry and raw, primal energy. Fellig -- best known as "Weegee" -- haunted the underbelly of New York City, photographing murder scenes, gangsters, pimps, bums, prostitutes, and anyone else who crossed his lens. The "swells" and establishment types didn't escape Weegee; neither did an early Frank Sinatra concern. In 1992, Weegee was loosely immortalized as "Bernzy" in the film "The Public Eye" starring Joe Pesci.

   "Shutterbug," circa 1940s like paparazzi today evoked a gallimaufry of wrath, disdain and consuming, almost erotic fascination. Politicians and religious leaders denounced the Shutterbugs, but they plunked down a nickel for the four-star Final Edition. Maybe they also patronized some of the taboo services and offerings the Shutterbugs brought to public light in stark, garish and revealing photographs.

   We may not like the paparazzi, and there is little doubt that much of what they do is, for some, a benchmark of "bad taste." In the heady grief-fest about Princess Diana, though, we should all guard against the temptation to legislate against a general principle based on what some view as outrageous and intolerable abuses. There are enough "concerned" religious and political groups peddling their respective cases for censorship and regulation. If the target is not the paparazzi, it might be some other mark, real, exaggerated or imagined.

   And when government has had it its say on how the modern-day "Shutterbugs" shall behave, what next? We should learn to guard against our temptation for un-freedom, and we should not wish too hard for constraint and regulation of the First Amendment and free expression.

   We may just get it.

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