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Friday, September 12, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Double Standard Seen In Funeral Coverage For Mother Teresa, Diana

Los Angeles Times

THE CONTRAST between the television coverage of the funerals of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa has ignited criticism from some TV executives and media critics, who say it demonstrates the importance given to celebrity as opposed to real accomplishment.

Television pulled out all the stops last week in the coverage of the funeral for Princess Diana. But the funeral of Mother Teresa a week later is getting less than royal treatment from some TV news outlets.

And that has provoked debate about the news media's priorities.

For the funeral of Princess Diana, all three major networks started live coverage in what were the wee hours of Saturday morning in the United States , then repeated much of it later in the day. Cable channels that do not normally cover live news events broke into their regular programming for the funeral.

Many major metropolitan TV stations dispatched news anchors and reporters to London for emotional tributes to the charity and humanitarian efforts of "the peoples' princess."

The funeral in Calcutta is getting far less attention.

The procession for the funeral of Mother Teresa - the diminutive Nobel Prize-winning nun who died last Friday after a life of ministering to the poor, afflicted and dying throughout the world - is scheduled to start around 8:30 p.m. PDT tonight, with the funeral set for 9:30 p.m. PDT.

Some will delay broadcasts in West

ABC, NBC and CBS have dispatched Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, respectively, to Calcutta, where they will anchor their nightly newscasts tonight, report for other network news shows and then cover the funeral. But the funeral proceedings on those networks will be seen live only on the East Coast and in the Central time zone. Viewers on the West Coast will see it on tape delay at 12:05 a.m. PDT or later so that prime-time schedules and local newscasts will not be interrupted.

CNN (beginning at 9 p.m. PDT) and Fox News Channel (beginning at 8 p.m. PDT) will offer live coverage of the funeral.

The contrast between the coverage of the two funerals has ignited criticism from some TV executives and media critics, who say it demonstrates the importance given to celebrity as opposed to real accomplishment.

"The balance of coverage given Mother Teresa as opposed to Princess Diana doesn't speak well for TV news," said Edwin Guthman, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. "The coverage is totally dictated by what they think the audience wants. They are walking away from their responsibilities as journalists in a free society. It's so evident that celebrity carries more weight with them."

One network news executive who requested anonymity said, "Honestly, we wouldn't be sending all of our anchors and covering Mother Teresa's funeral so extensively if it weren't for all the Diana coverage.

"We'd be strongly criticized if we didn't cover Mother Teresa in a big way."

Networks `overcompensating'?

Said another network executive, "I think the network news divisions may be overcompensating, having been criticized for doing so much coverage of Princess Diana."

ABC's Jennings said TV news is in a no-win situation: "Mother Teresa's death has not led to the worldwide frenzy that led us to break into coverage (for Diana). Given the extent to which the media covered Princess Diana, we will invariably be criticized for our coverage of Mother Teresa. But Mother Teresa is a very important story, and I don't think the two should be compared."

Even those who criticized the networks for their Princess Diana coverage said that, to be fair, there are major differences in the two stories.

Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, said: "There were elements of the Diana story that made it of tremendous interest: her role as a celebrity with whom many in the public identified, the extraordinary impact of her death on British society and the monarchy, the shocking nature of her unexpected death.

"Mother Teresa is a more traditional figure who lived a long life and is eulogized for her good works. Mother Teresa represents a tradition of service to a cause greater than the self. Diana represents the mythic inflation of the self. Guess which one resonates with the public?"

Lichter added: "TV is the whipping boy for dissatisfaction with the media. But I doubt whether the funeral of Mother Teresa will get the same amount of coverage in print as Diana. Newspapers were just as egregious in their coverage of Diana as TV."

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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