Wherever tears glistened at the Centennial Olympics, it seemed sure that NBC's cameras would be there to record them for posterity. They could be the tears of joy that brimmed in President Clinton's eyes as he watched a gold medal performance, or the tears streaming down the cheeks of girl gymnasts whose hearts had just been broken by failure. Either way, emotional spillage was good theater, and good theater was what the network intended to give America. How strange, how troubling, that when there really was a time to cry last Saturday, NBC went dry.
Nearly 18 hours after a deadly pipe bomb broke up the party in Atlanta's Centennial Park, an NBC Nightly News reporter named Bob Dotson told his audience, "On this misty day, there were few tears." Nothing that went before or after Dotson's account suggested that anybody at the network disagreed. But a woman from Albany, Ga., had been killed by the blast, and a Turkish TV cameraman had died of a heart attack in his rush to cover the tragedy, and the nation was staggered by this latest glimpse of the danger zone it has become. In truth, there was an ocean of tears to be cried.
At the start of the day NBC appeared to understand, as Tom Brokaw led its coverage from 2:20 a.m. till just before noon, when he briefly teamed with Bob Costas to make sense of the fragments of information that were surfacing. Maybe NBC reacted defensively, after both CNN and ESPN scooped its enormous Atlanta contingent by 10 minutes on the bombing story. But once the network began its scheduled telecast of the Games themselves, at midday, the bomb became almost an afterthought. Not until Brokaw returned to do the Nightly News did the tragedy reassume its importance. Unfortunately, Brokaw couldn't offer anything that CNN hadn't delivered hours before. And that was no way to meet journalistic responsibility now that evil had intruded on the heroism and goodwill in which NBC has invested millions upon millions of dollars.
To keep up with the story as it unfolded ever so slowly, the network needed only to punctuate each hour of its Olympic coverage with a brief update. Two or three minutes would have been sufficient to stay even with CNN while avoiding the all-news network's man-on-the-street padding. Then NBC's viewers would have learned that the FBI had an early take on the bomb and the bomber, that an Atlanta Olympics official was flinching at tough questions and that surgeons were putting the wounded back together. It seemed the obvious thing to do, particularly with the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 still being pulled from the water. But NBC went with beach volleyball and the Monica Seles-Gabriela Sabatini snoozerama instead. Sadly, the network was running true to form.
Its skittishness about the unpleasant side of Olympic news had become apparent when newspapers in the U.S. and abroad ran stories about organizational chaos in Atlanta. Wretched bus service, fouled-up computers, inferior housing for athletes, even warm Coke—you name it, and the host city was accused of it. Yet NBC scarcely breathed a discouraging word, endearing itself to the local pooh-bahs who have as much to gain from the Games as the network does.
The other obvious dent in NBC's reportorial armor has been its "plausibly live" approach to event coverage. Although the phrase sounds eerily Nixonian, the approach is really nothing but a way to snooker unsuspecting viewers into thinking they are watching something as it unfolds rather than on tape. How does NBC do that? Simply by refusing to say what's live and what isn't. The public obviously doesn't mind, or the network wouldn't be setting records with ratings that are 21% higher than those for the Barcelona Olympics. But if any of us suckers had turned to ESPN or all-news radio last Tuesday, we would have learned that U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug was a hero almost six hours before we saw her help bring home the team gold on one leg.
What NBC wants is to deal with the news only on its terms. That is questionable enough when the world's greatest athletes are at play. Once the bomb exploded, however, the network dodged its duty. The kindest thing one could say of its skimpy coverage was that it smacked of American resilience and indomitability: No lunatic was going to disrupt NBC's Games, by god. But this was a time that called for far more journalistically.
Janet Evans, the outgoing queen of distance swimming, could be heard telling an interviewer, "My first reaction after I found my parents was, I just want to go home." Even Brokaw acknowledged the cloud of fear hanging over the country by saying, "We're going to have to change the way we live." And still NBC refused to step up. It wanted a return to Olympic normalcy. No bomb, no blood, just a simple world in which track and field host Tom Hammond could compare Atlanta's somber mood to the way Jackie Joyner-Kersee felt when injuries forced her out of the heptathlon. There was just one thing that Hammond, like NBC, forgot: Death and a bad hamstring don't equate.