Twenty years ago this month a bunch of buddies and I were out late on the West Side of Manhattan, pouring Michael Jaeger from one bar into another in honor of his pending nuptials. We staggered out of the first bar, agreed on the next, and piled into a few cabs. It was the Saturday night of an early Labor Day weekend: August 31, 1997. If we did have cell phones, they certainly weren’t “smart” yet. So as we sat there, slightly toasted, in the back of our cabs, nobody was texting each other or scrolling through newsfeeds. Instead, we just sat there listening to whatever radio station the cab driver happened to have on. Except on this particular night, it didn’t matter which station the cab driver had chosen. Because every radio station on Planet Earth was talking about the same thing. That’s when I first heard the news.
Today, twenty years later, I am proud and grateful and a bit dazed to announce that I was a part of an amazing team of filmmakers that produced THE STORY OF DIANA, a four-hour documentary that premieres tonight on ABC. The first two hours roll out tonight (Wednesday), starting at 9pm, and then the second two hours tomorrow, same time. This has been the hardest I’ve worked on anything in a very long time, and the daze I’m feeling is not totally unrelated to the daze I was in that night in that cab, trying to fully process why this woman actually meant so much to me, as she did to so many of you.
I’m a straight white male (albeit one with admittedly-strong musical theater tendencies), and my friends and I don’t tend to gossip and gush about the royals and William and Kate and can you believe what she was wearing. My friends’ lingua franca tends towards sports and Trump and Onion headlines.
And yet: Princess Diana got to me. My wife and I started dating exactly twenty years ago, that same summer, and to this day Jen swears that I cajoled her to cut her hair short, gifting myself the full-on Princess Diana Experience. (Jen complied, I proposed, and the rest is history.)
I could opine for quite awhile about just what it was that made Diana such a remarkable object of obsession, for me and so many millions of others, perhaps the most obsessed-over human being in our lifetimes. But if you’re interested in the answer/s to that question, I would genuinely recommend that you check out the doc. It’s good, yo. Rarely, if ever, have I had the privilege of working with such talented filmmakers, all of whom busted their asses on this thing. If you suspect that this doc is probably just a bunch of hand-wring-y stories about taffeta and who squired whom to the polo match, I can say with confidence that there is much more to the story than that. I must take my hat off in particular to our two fearless leaders, executive producer Maura Mandt and director Rebecca Gitlitz, who led us body and soul through a phenomenal creative process, under bone-crushing time pressure. The film is genuinely outstanding thanks to their leadership, and my ass has the crop marks to prove it.
I will tease one specific aspect of this doc that I am most proud of, a storyline that my colleagues and I researched and vetted and took very much to heart, which is the question of why, precisely, the tabloid media grew into the massive Medusa it did during the 1990’s, devouring not only Diana but Anita Hill and Nancy Kerrigan and Monica Lewinsky and, more or less, the back half of the Clinton presidency.
Tabloid news has been around for centuries. But something happened during the Diana era that blasted tabloid values out of the gutter and into the mainstream. There actually was a mastermind behind this explosion, a bona fide Bad Guy in the story, who not only saw the sky-high, multi-billion-dollar potential in a global tabloid industry, but who had the will and ruthless cunning to transform his vision into a reality: the reality in which we all currently live, and question, more and more every day. Today’s Matrix-y world, in which news may be fake, and fake may no longer matter, has its roots in the Diana era, because of the values, character, and efficacy of Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch’s story lurks, just out of sight, like an infinite snake just below the surface of Diana’s emerald-seeming garden. I do not think it is in any way hyperbolic to say that the story of Diana and Rupert is the story of a powerless princess deposed by a new kind of monarch, a man who sensed the power vaccuum in front of him and filled it: brilliantly, brutally, and not without casualties. It would be hyperbolic to say that Rupert Murdoch killed Diana. But there is no question that his values are the wellspring of that black Medusa, and that his values created the bounty that all those paparazzi in Paris were chasing, twenty years ago. As the journalist (and former Murdoch employee) Roy Greenslade testifies in our documentary, Murdoch “created the culture in which everything the media did to Diana could occur.”
If you do get to watch the doc, I’d love to hear what you think. A special tip of my three-cornered pirate hat to my fellow shipmates on the Murdoch storyline: the brilliant editor Chris Iversen, the ferocious associate producer Erik Ficke, and the freakishly talented assistant editor George Hatzidimitriou. This ship was England.
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