Although NBC refrained from recycling more than a few seconds of Tuesday night’s befuddling profile of Evgeni Plushenko, its long program coverage was hardly an improvement.
Sequined snakes pulsating, Evan Lysacek gloriously skated his way to the gold. His fist-pumping victory was deserved — if a bit theatrical — but media treatment of the contest again warrants attention.
The message was clear: America wins the Cold War! A bold red “Cold War” banner — which was parroted through the night and even on local news — opened the night’s foray into human interest territory, which featured a short interview with Evan Lysacek’s family. When asked if she thought a new cold war was heating up between the two skaters, Lysacek’s mother replied, “I didn’t know the old Cold War had ended.” We can only hope she was joking.
NBC’s coverage of Plushenko remained less than flattering, not least its failure to consistently spell his name correctly throughout the evening (captions alternated between Pleshenko and the proper Plushenko). The abbreviated profile segment featured ridiculously close-up shots of the brooding Russian, interposed with a random yet somehow ominous shot of a dark analog clock, and was overlaid by music worthy of Jason Bourne.
Lysacek’s profile segment, conversely, included extensive footage of his all-American background, including a childhood fondness for competing in superhero outfits (though given his Batman-inspired skating costume on Tuesday night, this fondness has not yet expired). Lysacek’s “cute” was harshly juxtaposed against Plushenko’s gangster.
To reiterate, none of this is intended to detract from Lysacek’s talent nor his worthiness of the gold medal. But the media framing of the event, the background, and, apparently, the implications for macro-level U.S.-Russian relations, is worrisome.
In a way, Thursday night’s medal ceremony was an uncanny reversal of Nancy Kerrigan versus Oksana Baiul in the 1994 Winter Olympics. The American took few pains to hide her peevishness from the second tier while the radiant Ukrainian beamed from the top. Sixteen years later, the Russian sourly surveyed the crowd while the American practically floated with joy above him.
But drama, it seems, was more readily available in 1994. Kerrigan must have been a human interest profiler’s dream (could it get better than Tonya Harding?) and the collective investment in her story seemed genuine, rather than fabricated around a misleading narrative of Cold War on Ice.
In 1994 — when, it must be noted, the actual Cold War was much less of a distant memory — network commentators refrained from painting an apocalyptic confrontation between East and West. The difference between gold and silver is not — and should never be — equated with cold war. The difference is competition, the soul of the Olympics.
A thin line separates patriotism from jingoism. By attempting to extrapolate geopolitical complexities from athletics, and perpetuating gross stereotypes of Russian barbarism, media is misusing its sacred platform. The American intellectual Walter Lippmann spoke of media’s power to influence the “pictures in our heads” by compressing unspeakable complexity into digestible tidbits. Where is the line between media’s historic responsibility to report the news and its sanctioning — or even encouraging — “pictures” that do not necessarily reflect reality?
If Lysacek’s mother truly believes the Cold War never ended, supposedly “neutral” mass media such as NBC are clearly failing to uphold the balance between responsibility and mythology.