Friday, August 10, 2012

First, Except Actually Third

So let's talk NBC.

Yeah, we have to.

In spite of all the storylines coming out of the Games, the biggest one, arguably, has been NBC's coverage of them. At the start of the Games, I decided I'd go ahead and mock what I knew was going to be bad coverage, kind of MST3K-style, using the hashtag #nbcfail. I picked that hashtag because I'd seen an earlier one, #cnnfail, used to criticize CNN's coverage of the attempted revolution in Iran a few years ago. I figured some other people might already be there, but it'd be a good place to camp.

Boy, was that an understatement.

I was expecting bad coverage, but I was still taken aback by the depth and breadth of bad coverage I proceeded to witness and will still be witnessing for a few more days. The ubiquitous tape delays, and American viewers being the only nation in the world to have to worry about spoilers. The Opening Ceremony going to commercial 24 times when other nations' coverage subsisted on four. The lack of caring to even get countries' names pronounced correctly, and to constantly bring up how terrible life is and has been in virtually all of them save the United States. The cutting of a tribute to the victims of the London bombings so that Ryan Seacrest could interview Michael Phelps. The cutting of the athletes', judges' and coaches' oaths so one of those 24 commercial breaks could be taken. The constant perceived need to air fluff pieces, interviews, and just about everything except actual events. When events are aired, the gross overreliance on volleyball, especially beach volleyball. The commercial breaks during soccer games. The online feeds requiring a cable or satellite subscription. The feeds not allowing live coverage of the Opening or Closing Ceremony, sending those lucky enough to be sufficiently Internet-literate scrambling to find a foreign or pirated live feed. The feeds going to constant, unreasonably incessant ad breaks that crash Firefox browsers. The feeds of events intended for primetime airing being locked down after their live airing until after primetime. The unending drumbeat of American athletes and American victories, where American victories are glorious and defeats a cause to rage against the unjust heavens for allowing such a thing; where foreign victories are mentioned only in passing if at all and defeats to be condescendingly pitied, as they are merely more proof of American superiority, especially if they were defeated by Americans. (That is, unless the foreign athlete trains in the United States, in which case it's presented, as if to say 'Don't worry, even if this person wins a medal for their country, the United States is the country that REALLY won it.') The pervasive feeling among viewers that they are being treated like infants unable to comprehend what they're seeing, or more to the point, not seeing. The myriad of other, smaller mistakes, blunders and crimes that have made for a most miserable glorious two weeks.

These people will be covering a Presidential election for the next few months.

But last night, it got intolerable.

As said yesterday, the spirit of the Olympics is not in the win or the loss, but in the participation. When you watch the raw, uncut online feed, you will notice a lot of contests, races mainly, where one athlete or team falls far behind the rest of the pack. The PA announcer at the venue can often be heard, and for major events, various teams of commentators whom I've never managed to get the names of and seem to be a mix of American, British and Australian are provided. (Though I did catch that the gymnastics team included Shannon Miller.) The commentators are neutral, though there's a bit of mild, very mild rooting for their respective home teams. The PA announcers are true neutral. When someone is chugging along in last, every one of these people will cheer them along as best they can, and when all the others have finished and they're the only one still on the course, they will inevitably drop everything to cheer them home. Because it's about doing your best. About honoring the best athletes on the face of the earth, but ultimately showing up and participating on the world's biggest stage. That is the spirit of the Games: a two-week period when all nations are asked to put their differences aside for a little while, shut up and watch sports together, cheering on the world's greatest athletes wherever they may be from.

But it is not the spirit of NBC's Games. For NBC, the spirit is about American glory at any cost. Last night were the finals of the first-ever Olympic women's boxing competitions. There were three weight classes: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight, with the finals contested in that order.

First was flyweight. The winner here would be the first-ever women's boxing Olympic gold medalist. To the London crowd's utter delight, that honor went to Nicola Adams of Great Britain, who defeated Ren Cancan of China.

CNBC aired the fight, and briefly noted the historic achievement. But it was rather downplayed, with only a brief glimpse of the four medalists (including co-bronze medalist Marlen Esparza of the United States)... because these fights were run on tape-delay and they knew what was coming later.

In the second fight, the lightweight final, Katie Taylor of Ireland defeated Sofya Ochigawa of Russia. The crowd, much of which was Irish, again exploded in joy. NBC barely acknowledged it after the fight ended.

In the third and final fight, the middleweight final, Claressa Shields of the United States defeated Nadezda Torlopova of Russia. This was what NBC has clearly been waiting for. It was their turn to explode with joy. Shields was the first American woman to win boxing gold- and the only American boxing gold at these Games, as none of the ten American men made the medal rounds.

She was the first American woman to win gold. But NBC let the qualifier 'American' drop from conversation in a hurry. Adams and Taylor's earlier golds effectively ceased to exist at that moment. Shields, in conversation, was referred to almost exclusively as 'the first woman' or, eventually, "First! First! First! You're the first one!" They drove home the simple qualifier-less word "first" so pervasively that one man on the #nbcfail tag, which was focusing more on the fact that she only merited a 'by the way' sidenote on NBC's primetime coverage, ended up believing that Shields was the first gold of the night. A top-rated tweet from Oliver Willis (@owillis) stated, "yeah, yeah so claressa shields WON THE FIRST GOLD MEDAL EVER IN HER SPORT, lets not even show her face so we can show BMX BIKERS. #nbcfail"

This set me off. It's bad enough that NBC barely pays attention to non-American athletes who aren't Usain Bolt or someone that gets heavily covered outside the Olympics anyway (e.g. Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova). It's bad enough that all you see on NBC is Americans winning, and then you go to the actual medal count and you see that China, until the events of last night, had more golds than the US did, and that host nation Great Britain had been putting up some big-time numbers itself. But when NBC begins to misrepresent events almost to the point of outright lies, when a major achievement by another nation, the HOST nation, is essentially taken away from them by NBC so that an American can have it instead, we have crossed into the realm of propaganda.

They're not the only ones to make it appear as if the United States is always winning. The fact that the United States actually IS winning right now is irrelevant. They haven't been leading wire-to-wire, but you'd never know that from NBC's coverage save for a little late-night blurb at the tail end of the night where the medal count is shown and, some nights, China is sitting on top. And they didn't go quite as far as the blog Fourth Place Medal, which put the United States on top of China by removing all the sports that require judges and calling it the 'Real Medal Count'.

This is sports. Your team won't always win. Even the Harlem Globetrotters have lost games. A basic part of sports is making one's peace with that fact. If only one side ever won, people would lose interest. Another basic part of sports is accepting the results. If we do not believe the results to be accurate, we either take measures to correct them, or we do not put stock in the sport and watch something else. What we don't do is take perfectly legitimate results and alter them to say that we won when we really didn't, or that an achievement attained first or best by someone was in fact achieved by our team instead, at least not without evidence. If we disagree with what happened on the field, we give reasons. We give evidence of blown calls. We check replays. We check rule books and historical accounts. We don't just go and claim something that's not there. Even with national pride on the line.

Except, apparently, now.

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