Americans Welcome a Future King

The American media's attention to the royal birth was extensive, excessive, and -- given the hoopla surrounding Prince William's birth 31 years ago -- to be expected.

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A news ticker in Times Square on July 22. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The birth last week of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge (full name: George Alexander Louis) received predictably massive media attention in Britain and, surprisingly, in the United States as well. As a summer respite, the glowing image of the parents -- Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge (full name: William Arthur Philip Louis) and The Duchess Catherine (Kate Middleton) -- seemed to provide relief from so much mostly grim political, economic, war, and national security news, plus the current run of sexual scandals and sensational trials.

Leading the way on this side of the Atlantic was USA TODAY, which claims the country's largest readership for its print newspaper and free digital access. It devoted five pages of coverage the morning after the birth, and four pages to the baby's first public appearance. But coverage elsewhere was also extensive, given that the British royals are irrelevant in any meaningful way to Americans. And with the exception of John Oliver, the British comedian on The Daily Show, the news seem to be spared the attitude of dubious appraisal that is so much a feature of today's media culture. "Every broadcast channel and cable channel in the USA went live and stayed there for hours on Monday," the newspaper said. "Publications including USA TODAY poured out digital content. Twitter reported two million tweets and reached a peak of 25,300 tweets per minute. Even President Obama was waiting with anticipation, the White House said, which then tweeted out a picture of POTUS holding a baby."

The newspaper even released a special edition called "The Prince Arrives!" last Thursday.

Watching the story unfold, it occurred to me to look back 31 years to the birth of Prince William, when I was a correspondent in London for the Washington Post. Newspapers, television, and radio ruled the day, well before the digital domination of media and the prevalence of all-news cable. (This was only two years after CNN was founded). The many ways information is delivered have certainly evolved over the years, but to a striking degree, in some respects, last week's coverage had almost word-for-word the same upbeat tone as my account of the hoopla around William's arrival.

"Royal Heir Is Born: Birth of a Son to Charles and Diana Buoys British Spirits," was the headline on the front page of the Post's Style section over my story on June 21, 1982 -- which was a lengthy 1,475 words, according to LexisNexis. "Diana, princess of Wales, the popular young wife of Britain's Crown Prince Charles, gave birth tonight to the couple's first child, a son, who is second in line to the British throne," I wrote. The setting was St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington, the same hospital where Princess Kate gave birth with William in attendance. Charles won widespread kudos as the first male royal to be present during his wife's labor.

My piece went on:

Well-wishers who had waited all day in front of St. Mary's . . . cheered as word of the birth spread. The crowd chanted 'we want Charlie! We want Charlie!' and sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" to honor the baby. Knots of people at (Buckingham) palace gate and in front of televisions across the land joyously toasted this latest installment to Britain's favorite royal romance. . . Forty-one gun salutes were scheduled to be fired at the Tower of London and in Hyde Park to mark the event. . . Speculation over the boy's name already is rife. One London bookmaker made George the favorite. . . The saga of Charles and Diana has captivated Britain since their romance was disclosed 18 months ago. Their wedding last July was a gala affair and Diana since has been praised widely for her charm and demeanor.

A week later, another front page story in Style declared "Prince William Conquers Britain. England's Royal Baby Finally Gets a Name." "Britain has been in the grip of babymania," I wrote, "Poems, paeans of one kind and another, contests, solemn advice and knickknacks have poured forth in commemoration of what is clearly regarded by many British as a truly blessed event."

The exception to this bliss was Charles' sister, Princess Anne, who travelling in the United States at the time and "agreed with a reporter's observation," I wrote, that "'too much fuss' was being made about the birth. 'Anne Rapped by Queen,' the tabloid Sun headlined on an exclusive account of the dressing-down Queen Elizabeth gave her testy daughter."

Prince William was followed in two years by the arrival Prince Harry, but by then the sense that Charles and Diana's marriage was troubled had taken hold. As time went on, the rosy apparition of the royal couple turned increasingly dark, with media leaks about their failing marriage chronicled in detail in news outlets and books that were consumed with fascination wherever they were available. Diana's death in a Paris car crash gave her martyrdom as "the people's princess," in the words of Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time. Prince Charles, now 64 and married to his long-time mistress, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwell, is no longer the subject of curiosity, as he lives relatively quietly waiting for his 87-year-old mother to pass the throne on to him. The media legacy of the sad saga of Charles and Diana (and the divorces of Charles' siblings, Anne and Andrew) seemed to permanently end the British royals' hold on public goodwill. Yet, William and Kate--and now George--once again have revived the images of a glamorous young couple, with an informal and warm manner, smiling for all the world to see and inundated with media and popular approval.

Will it last, or be overwhelmed by scrutiny and gossip in this age of relentless revelation of indiscretion? Comparing the tenor and scale of 1982 coverage of William's birth with last week's events, Roy Greenslade, media columnist at the Guardian, provided this cautionary insight for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge: "We've always been completely mad (in the U.K.) on this strange paradox of wishing to maintain a monarchy in place while doing everything we can to make their life miserable and intrude on their privacy."