Let's Waive the Flag-Waving


It's not time for the world to join America," renowned social scientist Benjamin R. Barber told Bill Moyers on PBS recently. "It's time for America to join the world."

Amen, brother. TV's zealous Yankee Doodle Dandies should heed his words.

Although Barber was zinging President Bush for insisting that other nations fall in behind the U.S. on key issues abroad, his message also applies to the foreign policy of NBC Universal, TV gatekeeper to the coming Olympics.

NBC and its recently expanded television family (which now includes USA Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo) will telecast a whopping 1,210 hours of the Athens Games that run Friday through Aug. 29. Yes, it's the Olympics, and in Greece, where this enduring tradition began nearly 3,000 years ago, creating an emotional legacy of lumps in throats. Where else can someone get misty eyed over badminton?

And why not? What is more inspiring than disparate nations coming together—this year cocooned in $1.5 billion of high-alert security dictated by terrorist fears—to celebrate athleticism and competition in the spirit of internationalism, however fleeting?

If the past is a measure, though, don't expect that spirit from NBC much beyond telecasting the parade of nations during opening and closing ceremonies. Its color palette has been narrow; the only flag it has waved, unfortunately, is red, white and blue.

In earlier Olympiads, if a U.S. athlete mumbled something even vaguely coherent, an NBC camera recorded it, while chats with foreign gold medalists were rare. Every U.S. sugary, melodramatic moment was aired, every U.S. gold-medal ceremony and accompanying national anthem. But foreign tears, foreign medal ceremonies? Forget 'em, as if non-American winners were tiny footnotes to the proceedings, if not phantoms.

With al-Qaeda in mind, Greece is imposing a no-fly zone over Olympic venues. If only NBC would impose on itself a no-lie zone or, at the very least, a sense of fairness that would compel it to be an all-inclusive voice in Athens.

The alternative is electronic isolationism, which is American TV's enduring tradition, not just in sports but all across the news landscape.

A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times
anointed the 1984 Summer Olympics perhaps that city's "finest hour." It definitely wasn't television's.

In fact, ABC's telecast of that year's L.A. Games—with Howard Cosell and his fellow boosters unfurling themselves like Old Glories—established a template for jingoistic Olympics coverage on U.S. television, a narrow world view that nourished this nation's raging ethnocentrism.

If only we could have an Olympics minus all thoseforeigners.
That mindset guided ABC's telecasts—super-patriotic frenzies whose driving theme was not only America first but America only. It's understandable that a U.S. network would accentuate its nation's athletes and their achievements, just as foreign broadcasters do theirs. Its primary audience is American, after all, and U.S. athletes do pile up medals in the Summer Games. Yet ABC pushed this flag-waving philosophy to absurd lows.

In 1992, it handed that baton to NBC, whose own Olympics coverage has been just as overwhelmingly all-American, promoting U.S. athletes while mostly low-beaming or ignoring those nobody cares about because they're foreign. Says who?

Will NBC reverse in Athens this chauvinism that borders on extreme narcissism? Let's hope so. Although Americans have complicated feelings about invading and occupying Iraq, their zeal for things USA is unwavering in this post-9/11 world. So NBC will be tempted to play to fervent American patriotism curling up from Iraq like smoke from a bombing.

What's more, it knows the narrow interests of its primary audience, a myopia for which TV itself is largely to blame, given its role as the nation's primary news source.

News from abroad was largely a UFO on U.S. newscasts long before the networks began decimating their foreign bureaus in the 1990s for budgetary reasons and relinquishing much of their coverage abroad to all-news CNN and its cable progeny. The networks have always restricted global news they do run mostly to mayhem (or "bang-bang," as it's called), creating the impression that elsewhere all nations are in constant turmoil if not in flames. Having epic news holes to fill has not motivated CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC to correct that distortion, nourishing U.S. feelings of disconnection from the rest of the globe and a dangerous us-vs.-them mentality.

After ranking so high on the global food chain for much of a century, the U.S. sees itself as the throbbing, pulsating epicenter of sentient life, a lush green oasis in a barren desert. Most Americans see the world beyond this continent as largely a blur of teeming, anonymous masses, hot spots surfacing and disappearing according to the whims of the cameras.

Out of camera range, out of mind. It's hard caring for or feeling coupled with, either historically or politically, abstractions we don't know or hear about unless they are reeling from a coup or have a perceived al-Qaeda link.

Enlightened coverage of the Athens games would be a step in revising that. In other words, it's time for NBC to join the world.