NBC’s Tasteless Winter Olympics Coverage

OK, I admit it: I’m an Olympics geek. If you read my column regularly, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a huge sports fan. I can honestly say that I was skipping around anxiously awaiting the start of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Yes, I love the kinder, gentler Olympics that some say are too “soft” to watch. To me, it’s more than just ice skating, which in fact is a grueling sport, but I digress.

I was ready. I had my snacks prepared, bookmarks on my laptop to all pertinent sports sites, done all my background reading on the city, nailed down the athletes to watch, memorized the stories of guts and glory, followed the Lindsey Vonn saga and was front and center at 8 p.m. sharp. What did NBC start the 2010 Olympics coverage with? They started the event with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvil. I understand paying tribute to a young athlete who lost his life in pursuit of one of life’s greatest and most elusive accomplishments. My heart sank when I read reports about the tragic death of the 21-year-old before the broadcast. I immediately thought of his family who was probably there watching, his team and the fans. I knew that NBC would pull together a story, but I thought they would demonstrate a modicum of respect for the young man and his family.

I guess I expected too much.

NBC’s idea of a tribute to this young man was to start off with a short intro by Matt Lauer and Bob Costas, followed by Brian Williams reporting from the scene. NBC then proceeded to show Kumaritashvil alive at the top of the track, which was spine-chilling, and his death three times in a row, along with a still photo of his dead body with rescue workers working tirelessly to resuscitate an already deceased Kumaritashvil.

NBC went way too far. As a media scholar, I understand the predicament that networks face, particularly with so much competition from the Internet and citizen journalists. Having said that, there is such a thing as news value and news judgment, and I’m not sure what showing this young man’s demise over and over added to the experience of viewers — other than sheer horror. I don’t think that NBC should have shown it at all, but would have been more accepting of showing it once, if it were for the sake of transparency and delivering the news to viewers. I thought to myself that everyone working there is clearly asleep at the wheel. Sometimes it should not be about ratings, but about dignity and respect for others.

When in doubt, how about putting yourself in that person’s position? Would Matt Lauer like to see his son’s body fly off of a track and into a metal pole, dying instantly? Would Costas or Williams want the world to see their son’s lifeless body lying there, not moving, his foot propped up against the place where he lost his life? I would think not.

Did they ever think about this young man’s parents? His family and friends watching from his hometown? Kumaritashvil’s teammates? He was part of one of the smallest delegations there — one of eight from his country. What about the members of the Olympic committee? The chair was visibly devastated by this event even throughout the opening ceremonies.

NBC’s failure to think about any of these factors — or to think about it and dismiss it in order to justify showing this young man’s death multiple times — is sad. How do we claim to value life and treat someone’s death with such callousness?

This reminds me of the death of Seydi Burciaga, a young mother killed in the Atlanta floods in September 2009. News and tabloid agencies played her 911 call over and over. During the call, Burciaga, who is minutes from her home, is panicked because she knows that she is going to drown. The networks play the tape until she takes her last breath. I couldn’t sleep after hearing the terror in her voice.

For those of you wondering why I listened to it and why I watched Kumaritashvil’s death — it is because I wasn’t expecting it. I kept waiting for the news programs to cut away or for a happy ending, but it never came. That is what makes this young man’s death even more tragic: the fact that he died over and over again in the eyes of the viewers and the minds of the producers who were actually making these decisions.

I understand that if NBC doesn’t show the footage, they may lose ratings — but they gain respect from viewers by having a standard of decency and reverence for life. What exactly is that standard? All hell breaks loose over Janet Jackson’s nipple, which is covered and has to be magnified a zillion times to be seen by actual viewers because it’s harmful to children, but we can see Kumaritashvil’s horrific death because of its news value? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Burciaga and Kumaritashvil are more than just news stories. They’re human beings with families that are still here.

I used to watch NBC morning and evening news because of what I perceived to be journalistic integrity. Clearly this class act has become an ass act. NBC may be winning the ratings race, but it’s losing a lot more in the process.

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where she serves as cultural critic.

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