The First 20

The Diana Hiatus

The first great news story of the internet age happened while we were on vacation.

Police investigate the crash that killed Princess Diana in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.
Police investigate the crash that killed Princess Diana in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.

Jean-Christophe Kahn/Reuters

Toward the end of the summer of 1997—when your average internet user was hooked up with Lycos, Windows 95, and a 28.8k modem—the online newsmagazine Slate took a week off. It was a courtly, even aristocratic move, typical of Slate’s early self-conception as an old-school print journal that just happened to be available online. One day into this week of leisure, Diana, princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris alongside her friend Dodi Fayed, son of billionaire businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed. The media world that Slate inhabited stopped to mourn Diana, scatter reporters, generate think pieces, and pull together special issues. But Slate had already stopped, for very different reasons, and declined to restart in the princess’s memory. Even the biggest news story of 1997 could not beckon Slate away from lakeside and seashore.

“We confess to a moment of doubt about our genteel policy of a week off every now and then,” Slate’s then-editor Michael Kinsley wrote on Sept. 14, 1997, in a post titled “A Week of Silence.” He continued:

Were we the only media outlet that squandered this opportunity to exploit the public’s revulsion at media exploitation of the dead princess? … Could we not have profitably run a few symposiums on privacy vs. press freedom, personal reflections on the celebrity culture, editorials condemning the paparazzi? But we decided, in the end, that a week of silence was actually a fitting tribute to Diana—or, at least, that it was the only fully satisfactory response to complaints about media exploitation. 

Kinsley’s defense here is so deadpan that I’m not sure whether it’s facetious. Is he saying that a newsmagazine covering a news story is by definition engaging in exploitation? That for a press outlet to ignore the death of a woman hounded by the press is an act of both journalistic integrity and literary-grade irony? In a 2006 piece marking Slate’s 10th anniversary, then–deputy editor David Plotz was more straightforward about the infamous week of silence. “Diana’s death finally made us understand that online journalism is by nature a round-the-clock business,” Plotz wrote. “Our publishing pace began to pick up—from weekly to daily to several times a day.” (Also, it must be pointed out, Christopher Hitchens hadn’t started writing for Slate as of 1997. There is no doubt that Hitchens would have afforded a brief pause in his holidaying to dash off a surgically precise and cruelly correct ode to the princess that could have held the home page for days.)

To be fair to early stage Slate, there was a certain quixotic grace in stepping back from the fray of Diana hagiography in the immediate wake of her death. During August 1997—the same month that Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayed became public—the tabloids’ relentless reporting on the royal divorcée had a snide and pitying tone. The instant her death was announced on Aug. 31, that same press hustled to canonize Diana. It was enough to give anyone a case of whiplash—or, in Slate’s case, to render one speechless.

Take London’s Evening Standard, which as late as Aug. 7 was sneering at Fayed as “yet another new friend” of Di’s, musing: “It seems that the Princess of Wales cannot decide whether she wants to be Brave Diana, dispensing compassion to the suffering, or Rave Diana, frolicking with foreign playboys on Mediterranean cruises.” The Standard worried aloud that Diana’s forthcoming trip to Bosnia to visit with landmine survivors “may be ruined as speculation about her romance overshadows even cosmetic interest in the mines issue.” But the paper ultimately shrugged at Diana’s new romance with Fayed, since Diana “already has many of the trappings of a Eurotrash lifestyle—witness her presence at the funeral of her friend Gianni Versace.” It’s true, attending your friend’s funeral is so Eurotrashy ugh.

On Aug. 10, the Sunday Mirror ran a bombshell series of pap shots that became known as “The Kiss”; the British tabloids spent weeks in an implicit debate over whether opening bids for the photos of Di and Dodi’s clinch were set at 100,000 pounds or 200,000 pounds or maybe even 500,000 pounds. The same day as “The Kiss,” the Mail on Sunday ran the headline “Diana, You Can Do Better Than Dodi—Is the Princess Falling Into the Same Trap That Brought Jackie Kennedy Such Unhappiness?” Diana, the Mail lamented,

has lost touch with the Sloane world in which she was brought up; the country pursuits of the British aristocracy bore her. … She has discarded or quarrelled with all her former friends, the Catherine Soameses and the Kate Menzies, and she is shrewd enough to keep her distance from the tarnished Fergie. … Now we see Diana on the deck of Fayed’s yacht. It is smaller than [Aristotle Onassis’ yacht] Christina, and the furnishings do not include Impressionist masterpieces or bar stools made from the scrotum of a single whale.

Stripped of her Catherine Soamses, her Kate Menzies, and even her whale scrotums, Diana was, by tabloid decree, a lost woman. As the Guardian phrased it on Aug. 11, “Diana Flies Back to Private Minefield—Row Over Sunday Mirror ‘Kiss’ Snapshot Overshadows Princess’ Trip to See Bosnian Blast Victims.” The Belfast News Letter on Aug. 23 put it bluntly: Her 10 days in Saint-Tropez, followed by a Mediterranean cruise on the Fayed family yacht and a five-day tour of Greek islands, could only be described as “Di’s Desperate Search to Escape Reality.”

The portrait painted of Diana in newsprint all-caps in the weeks preceding her death was unmistakable: the princess for so long locked in a tower, only to be released into a tackier form of captivity—in Hitchens’s phrasing, a “jet-setting, disco-minded, super-rich sybaritism … the world of the brittle and the spoiled.” Diana’s itinerary of constant yachting and shopping among the nouveau riche, her seemingly endless vacation (but from what?), invoked many a cautionary tale of aimless and crazy-making socialiting: the gauche Onassis period of Jackie Kennedy; the late years of sad and scary Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton; and of course, the post-abdication idling of gruesome twosome Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson (whose Paris chateau Mohamed Al-Fayed purchased not long before his son’s rendezvous with Diana). Diana’s death automatically rewound her legacy to ca. 1984 with a dash of 1992: the beatific young mother, the impossibly chic princess, the haunted and hunted innocent bearing up bravely under her husband’s betrayal. The Diana of September was radically altered from the Diana of August. But in a Desperate Search to Escape Reality, Slate wasn’t there to weigh in on either Diana.

It is difficult or impossible under most circumstances to speak ill, or speak honestly, of the newly dead. It is incumbent upon high-volume, high-velocity sites such as Slate to come up with interesting things to say at all, and to do so instantly. Morbid as it may sound, two of the most rewarding experiences in my three years at Slate have been the hours and days following the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, respectively, when it felt like the entire staff joined in their shared love and admiration for two staggeringly influential artists to produce multifaceted packages on their lives and legacies. Diana’s death, shocking and violent, was a far bigger media story than either Bowie’s or Prince’s, but it’s hard to picture my colleagues coming together in anything like the same way to channel shared grief for the benefit of our readership (and for our benefit, too). Diana was famous for being famous, beautiful, troubled, and pursued. She left us no songs or films to analyze, no memories etched with her lyrics and chord progressions. She was, to the public at large, the irresistibly flawed protagonist of a pulpy novel—fascinating, sure, but from our vantage point, more object than subject.

That said, it’s easy to conjure what our coverage would have looked like if the Slate of 2016 had been running at full power in 1997. Resident fashion commentator Simon Doonan assessing Diana as a style icon. Interrogator extraordinaire Isaac Chotiner talking to a retired paparazzo about the pursuit of the rich and famous. Ruth Graham deep-diving on Di’s evolution as a tabloid protagonist. Graham’s fellow celebrity scholar Heather Schwedel with a close reading of a telltale Di trademark—her protective swoops of feathered hair, perhaps, or her haunted-fawn gaze. Gifted media watchdog Justin Peters locked in a room with 48 hours of wall-to-wall cable-TV Diana coverage. Our brilliant TV critic Willa Paskin watching the funeral. Our colleagues across the ocean at providing local perspectives on the fatal car crash. Our resident ex-Brits (and recent crackerjack Brexit correspondents) Gabriel Roth and June Thomas engaging in a dialogue about how Diana’s earthbound charisma humanized the monarchy, subtly altering the British public’s relationship to the crown.

Gentility got the best of Slate after Diana, but that misstep became an opportunity to galvanize a faster, nimbler, more responsive version of the magazine, closer to the one I love and work for today. I admit, though, that part of me admires the stubborn, principled reticence of 1997-era Slate. Just imagine having the right to say nothing, nothing at all.