On a spectrum of media polarization, NBC is seen as one of the most neutral popular channels. FOX News’ and MSNBC’s slants are notorious, even celebrated, but NBC emerges as a relatively reliable reflection of major news events. However, the network’s recent “human interest” profile on Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko sullies its objectivity and marks a hazardous foray into Cold War-style image manipulation and framing.
With its monopoly on Olympic coverage, NBC is responsible for broadcasting athlete’s life stories. As a microcosm, these stories represent national character itself. The network deploys staff for months or even years in advance of the Olympics to gather human interest fodder on promising athletes around the world. After colossal editing — which imbues plenty of soft focus footage and soaring, Olympic-worthy music — select clips are embedded within NBC’s nightly coverage. These mini-biopics seek to transcend raw times and scores by depicting a human dimension and to extract an emotional investment from a dispersed audience.
The profiles tend to follow a distinct pattern: difficult life circumstances, dazzling talent discovered, familial sacrifices, injuries overcome, and the staging for brilliant victory or humiliating defeat. In the spirit of the Olympics, athletes’ countries tend to be portrayed in their best light, depicting gorgeous scenery, community bonds, and generally rosy accounts of nations brimming with pride for their best athletes.
In contrast, NBC’s profile of Plushenko — and its subsequent broadcast of a fireside chat with Dick Button and his fixation with Plushenko’s “glinty eyes” — perpetuated a gross stereotype of Russia as a shadowy and potentially perilous monolith with Plushenko as its archetypal villain. Such portrayals represent media in its worst form, using its platform to prey on entrenched stereotypes and disseminate outdated assumptions about Russia’s sinister character. At a time when Russia’s relationship with the United States seems on slightly shaky ground — and is increasingly framed as a resurgent and power-desperate empire — this clip carried enormous potential to instill images that only deepen such caricatures.
The 4-5 minute profile featured a passenger’s perspective on Plushenko driving his sports car through his hometown of Saint Petersburg. The shooting angle, and editing-induced speed, depicted Plushenko as a reckless driver careening down the gloomy and deserted streets. With an accent deemed sufficiently heavy for NBC to patronizing include captions, Plushenko spoke imploringly of his repeat gold medal lust and his intention to dominate the competition. An ominous soundtrack reminiscent of Jaws echoed B-movie themes about the USSR and its peril to the American way of life.
Visually, the clip alternated between close-up shots of Plushenko and eerie, sepia-tinged footage of Saint Petersburg landmarks, including the iconic Church on Spilled Blood reflected in a turbulent canal. The metaphor of stormy waters was difficult to miss and images of Lenin and Stalinist architecture were thrown in as if for good measure, making this viewer wonder, What decade is it?
Perhaps NBC was merely aiming to stage a dramatic showdown between the American favorite Evan Lysacek and the steely Russian renegade. Drama, after all, is the lifeblood of the Olympics. But NBC overshot. In its desperation to drum up intrigue, it painted Plushenko as a James Bond-worthy villain and Russia as the once and always Evil Empire.