The tragic death of the princess could prove a watershed for the news-gathering biz

In death, as in life, Diana, Princess of Wales, 36, turned the media on its ear. From those shocking early hours when the world learned that she had been fatally injured in a high-speed Paris car crash, TV news underwent a transformation that rivaled changes brought by the Gulf War. The celeb-photo industry — universally reviled for its predatory practices — was sent spinning into an uncertain future, and the Internet became a site of global mourning for the first time in its history.

Sharing the tragedy: CNN, the dominant go-to network in times of crisis, faced its stiffest competition yet from a pair of brash news upstarts — MSNBC and Fox. Although CNN probably drew a larger viewership than its cable competitors, a ratings victory will be a hollow one; the network’s wobbly coverage inadvertently included allowing a Howard Stern prankster to get on the air. It also wasn’t the first to broadcast the news that the princess had died of her injuries: That distinction went to Fox, which, by using its British sister channel, SKY-TV, announced Diana’s death at 11:42 p.m. EDT. Yet coverage on both CNN and Fox lacked the calm, well-balanced, and consistent tenor of MSNBC, which reached bigger audiences than usual once NBC picked up its feed.

As it became more apparent that something unbelievably tragic had occurred, MSNBC anchor and rising star Brian Williams showed all the depth, control, and gravitas he lacked a year ago, when, just days after MSNBC went on the air, he erratically anchored the network’s coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800. ”NBC and MSNBC were [working] harder to ask questions about the accident in a bit more nuanced way,” says Wired media critic Jon Katz. Even CNN International VP Chris Cramer admitted that MSNBC ”looked good enough to me.”

Meanwhile, CBS bungled one of the biggest news stories of the decade because it could not find a reporter or network anchor to go to its New York City headquarters after an initial CBS bulletin reported the crash. Instead, some stations stuck with World Championship Wrestling until local New York City WCBS-TV anchorman Vince Dementri appeared on the air around midnight. ”There was no conscious decision to go with wrestling instead of Diana,” says a CBS News spokeswoman. ”We just got caught in an unfortunate circumstance.”

Of course, the networks, especially ABC, which picked up the BBC’s feed early Sunday morning, rallied. ”They put together some remarkable specials that had greater impact than the repetitious coverage the cable networks were providing,” says Robert H. Giles, exec director of the Media Studies Center in New York. ”The memorable coverage was NBC and ABC.”

And the network stars could be counted on for some memorable ”gets.” How did ABC News lasso an emotional John Travolta for its two-hour Sunday-night special? Simple. Mike Nichols, husband of PrimeTime Live anchor Diane Sawyer, is directing Travolta in Primary Colors and called in a favor. Ditto Eleanor Mondale, showbiz reporter for CBS’ This Morning, who leaned on friend Elizabeth Taylor when 60 Minutes called Sunday to ask her what celebrities she could get for its Diana-themed show.