The Princess and the Peons

Princess Diana's body was barely back on British soil when the most unlikely people began acting like royal pains, comparing their own plights to that of the deceased princess.

On September 2, Larry King's live show got a surprise call from none other than Patsy Ramsey, who wanted to pop off about the paparazzi and what tabloid journalism had done to her daughter, whom she called "America's People's Princess."

John Ramsey's attorney, Hal Haddon, joined the chorus the next day, decrying the still-leaking Vanity Fair article as "glossy tabloid trash, filled with false and misleading defamation."

But no matter how much the Ramseys and their lawyers and Boulder officials (when the three categories can be separated, that is) decry the attention that the media has devoted to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the press did not kill the six-year-old. Not the mainstream media, not the tabloids, not even the paparazzi. In fact, the press is one of the few entities that can be crossed off the suspect list. (For proof, take a look at that ransom note. It's clear that no editor ever came within a mile of it; otherwise, it certainly would have been shorter, if not necessarily more coherent.)

In the early days of the Ramsey case--many, many months ago, back when people actually thought there might be a quick arrest--the Boulder authorities were in hot pursuit of the media. Sergeant Larry Mason was taken off the investigation under suspicion of having leaked information to the evil press. (He responded by slapping the city with a lawsuit.) Appalled when the Globe published autopsy photographs of JonBenet, the Boulder County Sheriff's Department launched a full-scale search, quizzing city employees and administering numerous lie-detector tests (the only such tests administered to date in connection with JonBenet's death) and quizzing Boulder employees until they finally found the culprits: a former sheriff's deputy and a poor-shmoe photo clerk who'd been paid $200 for the pictures, did his time and recently wound up back in the headlines after he passed out naked outside his home and was arrested for indecent exposure.

And when more Ramsey photos leaked out of a Denver photo shop and John Ramsey's attorneys demanded an investigation, the El Paso District Attorney's office had to be called in--since Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter had already tapped five local DAs for his surprise "dream team," Denver DA Bill Ritter had a conflict on the case.

Perhaps recalling the less-than-stunning denouements of those probes, last week the Boulder police refused attorney Haddon's request that still another investigation be launched, this time in search of whomever had leaked sensitive police information to Vanity Fair for a story that Haddon says "flattered" the cops and "smeared the Ramseys." (And for that matter, wasn't particularly nice to his law firm.)

"At this time," the Boulder police responded in Ramsey Update No. 54, "there is no evidence that this has occurred within the police department, and to initiate an internal inquiry would be extremely disruptive to our criminal investigation."

Four days later, the Boulder cops finally surrendered to the inevitable and released the complete ransom note, which, despite the big bounties offered by those troublesome tabloids, first appeared in its entirety earlier this week in that risque, sensational publication Newsweek.

Where, of course, the previous week's cover had been devoted to Princess Diana.

To sum up those stunning similarities between JonBenet and Diana: Both were called princess--one officially, one in this summer's true-crime quickie, Death of a Little Princess; and both were favorites with photographers, although it was the Ramseys who sought out photographers to shoot pictures of their daughter in her pageant regalia. Just as it was Patsy Ramsey who courted attention last week by calling Larry King--when, for perhaps the first time in eight long months, the media was focused in a completely different direction. Events that had nothing to do with JonBenet--until Patsy Ramsey made the connections--had pushed the Ramseys from the front page of the tabloids.

They're back there this week.
But the Ramseys weren't the only ones to invoke Princess Diana's death as a defensive measure.

"The media killed Princess Di," the Reverend Henry Lyons told the thousands of people gathered in Denver last week for the National Baptist Convention. "They won't kill our convention."

If the similarities between Princess Diana and the Ramseys are slight, the overlap between Princess Diana and Lyons is almost nonexistent--unless you count the fact that both of them had significant problems with their spouses. In the case of Diana, the marital spats almost brought down the Royal House of Windsor. In the case of Lyons, they almost burned down the house.

The mainstream media didn't show much interest in Lyons, head of the country's largest black denomination, until his wife was arrested in Florida in July and charged with allegedly torching the $700,000 condominium the good reverend shared with his alleged mistress, a convicted embezzler whom he'd hired as the church's public-relations expert. But you can't buy publicity like this: The down payment on that condo had reportedly been made with church funds, and the financial chicanery didn't end there, as reporters soon learned. After Lyons's wife provided the match, the scandal spread like wildfire. And by the time the Baptists convened in Denver, the press wasn't the only group asking questions.

But it was the press that inspired the comparison with Princess Di, hounded to death by paparazzi (if not driven there by a chauffeur four times over the legal level of intoxication, and going four times the speed limit).

When the Di comparison failed to stifle all dissension, Lyons's supporters threw in charges of racism. On the second day of the convention, they blasted the press for focusing on the negative--the only reason a black convention would get any press attention at all. (And Mayor Wellington Webb chimed right in. From the podium, he criticized the media for its coverage of Denver International Airport, "how all that baggage was getting lost and the black mayor couldn't do anything about it"; its reporting of the financial incentives offered to lure the Baptists to town; and its refusal to refer to his wife as the First Lady.)

Lyons may not have gotten the royal treatment, but it wasn't racist, either.
Other religious leaders have been scrutinized even more closely--Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. In fact, at the same time Lyons was weathering his third no-confidence vote--and his goons were clearing the public hall (given rent-free to the Baptists) of reporters--the press was reporting that the former pastor of Creede Congregational Church had been sentenced to prison for three years. And he only absconded with $70,000 of the church's fund for the needy.