Di's Death: The Historic Impact

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In the past four decades, a mere handful of news moments have seemed momentous enough to leave a permanent imprint on the public consciousness. President Kennedy's assassination, the moon landing and the night war broke out in the Gulf were so widely and instantly disseminated that nearly all who witnessed them can tell you where they were and what they were doing at the time. Now, it seems the death of Princess Diana has been somberly added to this sublime list of events.

Even though it occurred late at night on a holiday weekend, preliminary reports suggest that millions upon millions tuned in and logged on to follow the shocking tragedy as it unfolded. Page views of CNN's web site, for instance, quadrupled on Saturday night, while the network’s cable channel got an unusually high 7.6 rating at the midnight hour — the moment news of Diana's death began to seep through. To put that in context, events such as the World Trade Center bombing or the Los Angeles quake barely registered a 3 rating. "My sense is it's just about a big a thing as you can get," says TIME National Correspondent Richard Zoglin. "Diana was the most famous person in the world. Her life was kind of a soap opera, and the ending was classic soap opera." Only this soap was for real, and that stark reality touched everyone who sat open-mouthed in front of a TV set or computer screen this weekend. Their only comfort: that millions of others were grieving, too.