NBC Puts On 2-Week Commercial for US Power
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, February 11, 2006
About half the readers of this site are from outside the United States, which means that among those of you who chose to watch the Olympics’ opening ceremonies from Turin Friday, about half of you were lucky enough not to be subjected to NBC’s nauseating production. But I’m not so sure you should count your blessings. Watching an American production of a world sporting event these days may be embarrassing. It is simplistic. It is supremacist. It is promotional to the core. But it is also instructive. NBC covers the Olympics the way American neocons do foreign policy: The world is 95 percent America, 3 percent water, and 2 percent everything else. America’s projection onto the world is mostly as an emblem of force, preferably unrivaled. What world does exist outside its borders is reduced to elementary-school simplicities (“1.3 billion Chinese!” and how to say Turin in Italian). Above all, it’s reduced to the presumption that the rest of the world is either a by-stander, an enabler or a threat to American hegemony—what America’s Republicans, who have more in common with Charles DeGaulle than with Abraham Lincoln, would call American greatness (even as that greatness is right now pulling an Algerian rug from under its booted feet, with Iraqi weaving). That’s how NBC projects its Olympic coverage. All the world’s a spectator to American prowess and dominance. You get the sense that none but American athletes are in these competitions, just as the Bush White House gives the sense that all the world is collateral for American foreign policy. NBC has been trained for the task. The same people who brought us the Iraq war as show business and “The Rescue of Jessica Lynch” as truth, and who keep bringing us coverage of the White House as public relations, now bring us the Olympics as a two-week commercial for American power.
The introduction set the tone. The announcer, speaking in the cadences of a Vietnam War documentary, gave a Travel Channel-synopsis of Turin’s Alpine character, with cinematography spectacular enough to make you wonder why it was so maliciously abbreviated. He swept over Turin’s architecture and summed up its two thousand year history in twelve seconds or so (about the length of any world history lesson in White House briefings). He intoned about this or that athlete from another country, the one whose body was “stitched together after twelve surgeries” or the one who single-handedly convinced his no-snow African nation to endorse a winter Olympic federation so he could compete. He made you feel that, well, maybe there is a world out there after all. But then the music changed — from conventionally upbeat to Rambo-martial. Instinctively you knew what was up, for having been on the receiving end of similarly ominous soundtracks for the last four years every time a news show substituted nationalistic bombast for reporting: The subject switched exclusively to American athletes. It was no longer sport, but war. It was no longer competition, but defiance, whether it was about the athlete who “has converted his body into a bullet” or the one from New Hampshire who has taken his state motto and, somewhat inexplicably, turned it into his Olympic promise: “Live free or die.” If this weren’t enough, the announcer trumped up a little bit of divine right when he claimed that “the royalty of American figure skating” was making its return, lord knows from what genesis — Tonya Harding? Nancy Kerrigan? The eternally unfulfilled promise of Michelle Kwan? Naturally, Kwan was NBC’s very first Olympic interview, though not word one about the four Olympians who’d already been booted out for doping up, among them Zach Lund, the American sledder who made a gold medal seem like his entitlement.
What’s imperial gold to America sounds tinny to much of the world, and of course even to much of America, judging by the other inescapable parallel in this story: Bush’s anemic approval ratings—and NBC’s: “Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony was the worst-watched in at least a decade,” went one report. There’s a lesson there, but America’s powers that beam, from the presidency down to its media farmhands, aren’t learning it for being too self-absorbed. To the self-deluded, approval doesn’t matter anymore.
In 2001, the whole world called itself American in solidarity with the attacks the country sustained. It didn’t last, because President Bush couldn’t pass up the opportunity to answer fanaticism with fanaticism, alienating the world along the way. That the world’s pronounced tendency to hate Americaalmost as much as it hates Iran seems only to reinforce his conviction that the only country that matters is America. He said as much in an interview with Bob Woodward in early 2002: “At some point,” Bush said of the war on terror, “we may be the only ones left. That’s okay with me. We are America.” NBC’s Olympic coverage revels in that unilateral view. It should be alienating to anyone but the most hardened, modern version of America-Firsters. But we keep watching because we don’t have a choice, or because the instructive element is worth the attention, or because there are always a few surprises, like NBC’s uncharacteristic decision to show the entire parade of nations, cutting not a single one of the eighty participating countries even when it went to commercial. Not bad. But that was the sort of exception that proved the rule, a bone thrown to Bob Costas, the eminently qualified (and worldly) Olympic anchor since the late 1980s. His talent was ruinously snubbed Friday by NBC’s decision to stick him with a an escort for the evening, the way the Pentagon sticks reporters with escorts in war zones: Costas’ shadow was none other than Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and recent replacement for Tom Brokaw. It was half publicity stunt half conceit. NBC wants to give Williams exposure in his new role. Williams wants to give himself gravitas. And NBC’s Olympic coverage wants to seem au courant, hip to the sporty and the newsy. Instead, Williams’ comments — about Italy providing the third-biggest contingent in Iraq (he did not mention that Italy was withdrawing its troops over the next several months), about China having an iffy environmental record, about Iran threatening Israel, about Danish athletes potentially triggering demonstrations over the Muhammad cartoons — had the feel of a mortician distributing his calling card at a wedding. It wasn’t just intrusive. It was obscene for its self-promotion and redundancy, and for what it took away from the athletes while implying that they somehow reflected their nations’ policies. The Olympics may be all about promotion, politics, profiteering, marketing, drugs and corruption outside the playing fields. But within them, for those brief moments that athletes hold the stage, they remain about sport for sport’s sake. With obvious exceptions — the U.S.-U.S.S.R. hockey match at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics come to mind — they remain exclusively about the athletes and their individual frailties and triumphs. Not their nations’. Leave it to NBC to demolish that one last redeeming illusion. It was bound to, having demolished all others.
For here’s another one of those ironies of American technological supremacy and “freedom”: We were not allowed to watch the opening ceremonies live, the way most of the rest of the world did. We won’t be allowed to watch most of the fortnight’s marquee events live, either. NBC packages them for prime-time viewing, between 8 and 11 p.m., to suit advertisers and best reap its $613 million investment in broadcasting rights to these games alone. So it goes with freedom’s might. When dividends are at stake, freedom is reduced to a pretty slogan (which NBC made much use of in its descriptions of “ Torino” as the birth-place of Italy). We are now treated to news anchors who, like one local specimen for NBC’s WESH-2 in Orlando, said he “can’t wait to see what happens tonight” — a newsman saying this — even though the opening ceremony was several hours old and its glittery pictures and accounts were all over the Internet. If the Pentagon is always fighting the last war, the television networks are always broadcasting the previous decade’s Olympics. The distortions are nevertheless in perfect alignment with the American presumption that time zones don’t exist outside the United States, that time itself is an exclusively American luxury others abide by. To watch the Olympics on NBC, like watching the news on any American network, is like shopping in a mall or gambling in a casino: It’s a world onto its own where clocks don’t intrude and windows on the world are non-existent, for fear of distracting the consumer from his primordial duty: to buy what’s being dished out efficiently and uncomplainingly. And then to celebrate his luxurious imprisonment with canned patriotism, for let’s not forget the flag-raising ceremonies disproportionately detained by the Star Spangled Banner.
To reword Tacitus’ famous phrase about Roman armies, they created a monopoly and called it free enterprise. And it is this sort of mentality that pretends to be bringing freedom (and free enterprise!) to the world.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide’s Notebooks. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.