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Net mourns Di, debates media role

After Princess Diana perishes in a Paris car accident, the Internet is serving as a forum for debating the issues surrounding her death.

Princess Diana's royal life was filled with "visual stories," and so it was chronicled on television and in tabloids and celebrity magazines.

After she perished in a Paris car accident this weekend, the Internet also played a role in spreading the news, providing a forum for mourners to pay respects, and for debating the paparazzi's activity surrounding her death.

But a key issue now circulating is what role the Net will play in the morbid pursuit of real or fake photos of the grisly crash. How this evolves could again test the Net's credibility as an information medium as do-it-yourself publishers post content alongside established media giants.

The German tabloid Bild already has posted a picture of rescue workers and the mangled Mercedes online as well as in its print edition. The tabloid also set up a chat room to debate the use of the photo. A letter to the public is on the site, stating "Bild did not buy any photographs of the bodies of Princess Diana and Dodi and does not intend to buy such photographs. The photograph that Bild published on Monday, September 1, does not show any of the accident victims."

Bild added that the photo was not purchased from paparazzi.

French authorities confiscated some film taken by paparazzi, according to reports. Some photographers were arrested after allegedly tailing and then not aiding the Princess of Wales and her companion, Dodi al Fayed, who also died in the accident. U.S. tabloids such as the National Enquirer have pledged not to buy or publish the rumored photos.

Still, media critics and online editors say it's only a matter of time before more gruesome photos are available internationally via cyberspace and the tabloids.

"It's going to leak all over the place, online and off," said Jon Katz, media critic for Wired magazine. "The Internet has made it impossible to completely contain these images. This is the biggest story in the world and people are going to want to see them--it's human nature. There are going to be fake photos and real photos...It can't be controlled."

Television's marathon coverage of Princess Diana's death is only driving the desire, Katz added. "They are contributing to the appetite. [Yet] the photos are not going to appear on mainstream news sites."

News sites, including the New York Times, ABCNews.com, and CNN, posted stories almost immediately after TV reports first broke the story that the princess was injured and two others were killed in the Paris crash. CNN, for example, raked in more than 4.3 million page views Sunday.

Updates spread quickly in the chat rooms as well. For example, in Salon Magazine's Table Talk, a reader posted initial news of the accident and of Diana's death hours later. Even the Queen of England's official site was itself overtaxed with traffic.

However, Katz said Web news sites were not as significant in breaking the story and won't be a crucial part of future coverage of the funeral and other memorials. Those events are more likely to be watched on TV.

Some say the Net sites still offered something the TV and newspapers couldn't. Andrew Ross, managing editor of Salon, was shopping for a used car on Yahoo when he saw a bulletin about the wreck.

"One thing Web magazines can do is stay a little bit ahead of the curve. The TV coverage can be very compelling as it's breaking right in front of you. On the other hand, as the New York Times TV critic wrote today, the TV anchors became 'mourners in chief,'" he said.

In addition to a news story, Salon ran an interview with Camille Paglia, who at one point called Diana's death "a very tacky end."

"I welcome the opportunity to be franker and quicker in this medium," Ross added. "The traditional media felt the need to be more stately and official and to parrot conventional wisdom."

Perhaps the Net's greatest contribution in documenting the sudden death of the princess will not be floating "never-before-seen" pictures or hip commentary, but in giving people a place to sort it all out, what Wired's Katz called "information and grief-sharing exchange."

"People on the Web are raising smart questions the mainstream media aren't raising, such as why was the car going so fast? Or is she being overglamorized by the media? The Web will give many people a chance to yak about it."

Indeed, people were talking. In newsgroups across the Web, Netizens grilled the paparazzi, grieved the princess, and questioned who was to blame. "Fry the bastards! Nail their hides to the wall! And then while we're at it, let's make a law making it illegal for this type of 'stalkerazzi,'" stated a post on "alt.princess.di.di.die."

One site created a shield of Diana that others could use to show "respect and grief" by posting it on their own home pages.

Some expressed disbelief. "I am surprised by my own feelings of grief over the death of Diana. I have never been a big celebrity follower, and I would just as soon have my arm broken than reach for a tabloid. Yet Diana's life and death have had a strange effect on me, one that I will not try to justify to those who find it strange or symptomatic of something," said a post on Salon.

Others pitched both sarcastic and seemingly serious conspiracy theories about the death. Not surprisingly, some expressed that they could care less about the whole event.

The alleged photos of the crash scene stayed at the center of some debates. Many called newspaper editors and TV producers hypocrites. A chain email letter urging a boycott of tabloids was also passed around.

"In the coming weeks, all these tabloid editors who are now acting so aghast and self-righteous in refusing to buy the Princess Di crash/death scene photos will be falling all over each other, making large cash offers to the surviving bodyguard to tell his 'exclusive' story of what he witnessed that fateful evening," said one newsgroup post.

"It's a pathetic day for journalism," echoed Erna Smith, chairwoman of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. "She was dating somebody; this doesn't have anything to do with the public's 'right to know.'

"But if this fashions an occasion for a discussion about the media, then that's always a good thing," she said.