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WITHOUT HURTING THE REAL PRESS, LET'S FIND A WAY TO CURB THE VICIOUS 'STALKARAZZI'

Because it is easier than the alternative, it is always tempting to see the world and reality as though it's a penny -- something with two sides: it must be either heads or tails, this or that. Either we must have total control of the press, or we must have complete license.

In fact, the universe is polyhedral. If we look for alternatives, we are likely to find them. After the death of England's Princess Diana, surely we realize that we need to find safeguards for those people who have become famous because they have special qualities that we value, but we must do it without sacrificing the freedom of the legitimate press.

The British tabloid press is a frightening and dangerous entity. As the tabloids gain a firmer and firmer hold, the legitimate newspapers either start to disappear or to blur the line and blur the distinctions between themselves and the tabloids. The tabloids have no shame, no worry about printing what is true.

Shortly before Diana's death, a digitally altered picture of her was published, statements that she would not have made or made in a context which changed them completely were headlined by her picture, and pictures of her were taken with special filters that made her look as though she had skin disease.

In America, Christie Brinkley is now suing a tabloid for making amazing and far-fetched statements about her.

A problem only for the rich and famous? Not so. If sleaze journalism has the license to poke lenses into the homes of the privileged, to stalk their children, to lie about their behavior and to ruin their reputation today, a time may come when anyone might be subjected to that invasion.

What happened across the sea to two girls named Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson was frightening. The tabloid press felt it had every right to hound them for everything including for being, in its opinion, overweight. Each acquired an eating disorder. Then, when the duchess of York was pregnant, the tabloids here and there blasted her for being too thin and endangering her child.

When her second child was about 2, there was a spread about the duchess and her children in an American magazine. She looked like a concentration camp survivor. She was skeletal, and her hair was thinning. There was no mention of that in the article.

In England, cheap shots and crude jokes about her on sitcoms and everywhere seemed to become a national pastime. Even far away on this side of the Atlantic, this coverage made me feel like a helpless spectator at a gang rape. There was no end to the assaults; whatever she did was harshly criticized -- and this was prior to the notorious topless photos.

In some respects, the princess of Wales fared better; yet in the end, her position was more dangerous. She had escaped the deadly barbs by becoming a goddess; she was perfect. When a goddess, however, is made out to have clay feet, the reaction is merciless. The tabloid press had already begun to attack her. I believe she knew she had to escape to save her life. Judging from the recording of a frantic phone call about the stalkarazzi, she may have known that there was really no escape, that it was only a matter of time.

Diana is gone, but not quite free. She now has no control whatsoever over her image. Anchors who claimed that they had been her friend try to goad their interviewees into saying something negative about her; writers who had the privilege of lunching with her write about how she was "too tall, too blond"; writers who claim that they had "fallen in love" with her state that she was "crazy" (in a world gone mad, the rational seem unstable).

Guilt-ridden reporters talk of how they think she "used" the press and encouraged some of the attention. In fact, one of her earliest arguments with her husband was over her wanting to flee the press. Later, she had simply come to accept to some extent that which she could not change.

We must do something to limit the stalkarazzis' feeding frenzy. We can do this and at the same time protect the freedom of the legitimate press.

A complex problem requires a complex solution, but the goal is not unreachable. Part of the solution might be to publish, as a rule, only photos taken by photographers who had earned a kind of union card. Another may be to enforce the distance rule established in other cases -- a prescribed distance that must be kept from celebrities in private and especially from their children, and to punish anyone who had invaded someone's home as an official would be punished for doing the same without a warrant or as any trespasser would be punished.

Why should we require police forces who attempt to catch the worst criminals to go through procedures to bug someone's home or car, but allow sleaze "journalists" to do so with impunity?

We can come up with methods to protect both the legitimate press and the freedom of the individual if we decide that the universe is not a penny with only two sides.

MARIAN HELZ is an East Aurora writer.

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