Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokesperson for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Thursday, the BBC finally acknowledged that journalist Martin Bashir used what it called “deceitful” methods to help land the bombshell 1995 interview in which Princess Diana confessed her own affair, her husband’s affair and her bulimia. It’s only taken two and a half decades.
A report commissioned by the BBC and written by retired high court judge Lord Dyson details how Bashir showed fake documents, which a BBC graphic designer said he prepared, to the princess’ brother, Earl Spencer, to land the interview. (Bashir, for his part, has apologized but claims the doctored documents didn’t cause Princess Diana to grant the interview). Although the BBC has long known about the fraudulent documents, in 1996 it cleared Bashir of wrongdoing without even speaking to Spencer.
It’s not difficult to imagine why the BBC wasn’t initially motivated to investigate further: over 20 million people viewed the interview and we’re still talking about it today. And Princess Diana is hardly the only woman whose suffering or sexuality have been manipulated by the press; members of the media have long –and disgracefully–exploited female interview subjects in order to drive up viewership, readership and clicks. But now, social media gives women in the public eye– and the rest of us – powerful weapons to fight back that simply weren’t available in Diana’s day. We must continue to deploy them while calling out this misogynistic behavior for what it is: exploitation.
Remember the famous 1999 Rolling Stone cover story about Britney Spears, which featured the 17-year-old girl wearing a bra while holding a Teletubby? The author of that piece, Steven Daly, now acknowledges that the cover – and other pictures, like one of Spears in her underwear with her dolls – “were soft-porn pictures of an underage girl.” Daly told the New York Times he now realizes it was inappropriate for him – a 30-something man – to be interviewing Spears in her bedroom.
Plenty of other members of the media also misused the young star, as a recent documentary about her made clear. After Spears was photographed driving with her baby unbuckled on her lap in 2006, she said she was fleeing paparazzi after a “horrifying, frightful encounter.”
But just as the Diana interview generated so much fervor by casting her within the trope of a faithless woman scorned (the line that will never die: “there were three of us in this marriage,” a reference to Prince Charles’s love for his now-wife, Camilla), the media pegged Spears as one of the “girls gone wild” it loved to expose so salaciously in the 1990s. Other such targets included Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Whitney Houston and other young women who captured public fascination.
Consider, for example, Monica Lewinsky. Now, while anyone who is discovered to have had sexual relations with a sitting president should expect overwhelming media attention, in a 2015 TED Talk, Lewinsky highlighted how it went far beyond prurient interest: she was “branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.’” Bill Clinton – the president of the United States and a significantly older man who should have known better than the 22-year-old Lewinsky – was not described with equivalent words that conveyed the same types of sexual judgments (because, of course, they don’t exist).
This media coverage was surely devastating for all of these women – and, no doubt, for plenty of others who are cast into the spotlight, whether or not they seek fame.
All of these reckonings over how women were treated in the past are important, because publicly excoriating journalists for these practices sends a powerful message to other members of the media about what both the public and their own organizations will tolerate in the future (the BBC admitted “clear failings” in the episode and said “The BBC should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew.” It said Bashir resigned due to poor health earlier this month).
On Thursday, Prince William released a video on Twitter saying the BBC had contributed “significantly” to his mother’s “fear, paranoia and isolation.” Her other son, Prince Harry, said “the ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life.”
As for Lewinsky, she says in her TED Talk that there was a time when her mother “made me shower with the bathroom door open,” presumably so she couldn’t commit suicide. In her talk, Lewinsky describes herself as “patient zero of losing a personal reputation” on the Internet. It’s true that the Internet and social media now exacerbate the abuse of women because ordinary people often pile on with vicious comments. But these platforms are also part of the solution.
Social media now offers women the option to tell their stories in their own words and share them publicly, without dealing with the at times misogynistic mainstream media. Prince William did this in his video response. Lewinsky did this with her TED Talk.
And as Drake University professor Renee Ann Cramer explains in her book “Pregnant with the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Bump,” while celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lopez, who are hunted by paparazzi, used to sell images of their newborns to the press (and donate the money to charity) to control the environment in which they were taken and diminish demand for them, now celebrities like Kim Kardashian post pictures of their babies on social media on their own terms. Other women who are treated unfairly by the press should take full advantage of this strategy.
But social media gives the rest of us platforms to speak out, too – and it’s time for us all to start using them for good.
While the media may help create demand for exploitative content in the first place by sometimes ginning up the scandals it then covers, the system still wouldn’t work if the public didn’t tune in and log on. So, in a way, we’re all complicit when we do. It’s up to all of us to use our accounts to tell these outlets to stop. We should collectively express our outrage at the ways too many in the media help set women up to be publicly pilloried – and we should keep calling it out every time we see it.
Princess Diana didn’t live long enough to claim any advantage or control over her own story on social media. Her sons’ have provided a good example of how to do this. The rest of us should follow their lead and use our accounts to let it be known that content exploiting women isn’t something we like.