As someone who teaches media ethics — a course that seems increasingly divorced from real-world journalism — I am ever on the lookout for examples of coverage corrupted by spin. In particular, I look for unconscious bias, a concept I appropriated from the social justice realm, where it’s used as a blanket explanation for any and all racial disparities. Though unconscious bias has been repeatedly debunked in its original understanding, I would argue that the just-concluded Olympic events in Tokyo presented us with a case study in its relevance to today’s mainstream media.
Put simply, a two-week international showcase for the world’s best athletes morphed into an unambiguous showcase for the knee-jerk partisanship of those who covered it.
It wasn’t necessarily that Lester or David or Anderson started out with the goal of politicizing the Olympics. Rather, they and their colleagues fell naturally into a pattern of questions and observations that defaulted to a progressive worldview.
To begin with, there was no sense from the assembled media that this august occasion might require of our athletes a certain decorum or circumspection in matters sociopolitical. No nod to “shut up and dribble,” Laura Ingraham’s famous exhortation for LeBron James. There seemed not a shard of doubt among marquee media types that our Olympians were entitled to pontificate on the thorny issues of the day. Journalists pointedly advised even the staid, skeptical International Olympic Committee to “embrace the protest,” while encouraging athletes to let their thoughts wander far from the track or pool or pommel horse, thus trampling on the wishes of viewers who’d prefer their sports without a side of sanctimony.
After female shot-putter Raven Saunders updated the famous Black Power fist by forming an intersectional X over her head, NPR cheered her and others for “keeping human rights at the center of the stage,” almost as if the Olympic events were just some gaudy window display to draw viewers in. NPR later ranked Saunders’ display among its most memorable Olympic moments. NBC, the network home of the Olympics, gushed in a headline that “women are certainly as vocal as ever.” The story left no doubt that this was meant approvingly.
Lester Holt, the on-scene anchor and point man for NBC, was particularly telling in his lead-ins, seldom missing an opportunity to remind viewers that this or that athlete, far from just being some sweaty jock, was committed to the “fight for racial justice” or another form of social equity.
A key subtlety here. For Holt to state in his narrator’s voice that a given athlete is “fighting for racial justice” takes as a given (and subliminally communicates) that widespread racial injustice exists. Holt, after all, would not say that a given athlete is trying to improve his times in the 4×100 relay if no such race existed or if the athlete didn’t run it. More to the point, if you, the viewer, heard Holt make such a statement, you would assume that such an event exists and that the athlete competes in it. So too “racial justice.”
When CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed noted ESPN firebrand Jemele Hill on top Olympic storylines, the discussion quickly turned to “unfair” treatment heaped on gymnast Simone Biles in “right-wing media.” Hill imputed a racial component to criticism of Biles’ early departure from the team competition (a persistent theme of hers), and it became clear that Lemon and Hill saw nothing dissonant in the notion that black athletes were representing the flag while also protesting the flag.
Lemon and guest then turned their attention to the U.S. women’s soccer team, again seeming incredulous that some Americans reacted with schadenfreude when Sweden upended the team in a shocker. What, after all, could our women have possibly done to anger people—unless you count taking a knee during the National Anthem or the fact that several players, including superstar Megan Rapinoe, have been tireless in cataloging the racial, financial and other injustices they discern in American life?
Clearly to the likes of Lemon and Hill, disrespect is a one-way phenomenon: Athletes are permitted to show contempt for America, but it is anathema for Americans to show contempt for athletes.
Now and then, the media addressed the elephant in the gym, COVID, which was unfailingly covered like so: We must vaccinate everyone and mask up. On the eve of the Olympics, a major Australian publication, The Age, ran a story suggesting that maybe it was time to make peace with COVID and move on with our lives. That sentiment was conspicuously absent during Olympics coverage on NBC and other major American outlets (and remains so, of course).
The games yawned to a close with the usual saccharine retrospective of Olympic high notes, though the media dutifully took a solemn pause to tout Simone Biles’ “courage” — not a word that everyone might use in describing her actions (even if President Biden used it too this past Saturday night).
Thus ended a medal-winning two-week immersive experience in a take on life that seemed so self-evidently true to the denizens of mainstream media that nary a contrary word needed be uttered on air.