So we are at the end of these Olympic Games. Mammoth undertaking, nearly the entire world enthralled to some degree or other with these contests reflecting intense passion, competitive fire, and, for the most part, a sense of universal brother-and-sisterhood, human solidarity writ large across nations and cultures and even religions of the world, oh my…
All of it reflecting years of effort and training and dreaming for a select few fortunate enough to make it to this pinnacle of the sporting world.
(Yes, I know it also reflects rampant commercialization, politicization, fraud and influence peddling etc.; I’ll get back to you the very moment I find a large human endeavor that is free of those…)
In the midst of it all, a quartet of lunkhead male swimmers, who I’m sure are fine sons and friends and teammates with many scores of good people who can vouch for their essential good character, get too much beer and post-performance boredom inside them and decide to do something appallingly stupid. No, not bomb the Olympic Village or rape any of its residents, but force open a gas station bathroom, tear off a soap dispenser, that kind of thing.
Even more stupidly, they concoct a ridiculous story to cover their tracks, reflecting bad behavior all around. Worthy of note and condemnation. But still…
The whole sorry situation then begets this nugget from a wire service report on the event a couple of days later:
“The incident has become a defining story of the games.”
I don’t believe I knew that!
But wait. Says who, exactly?
The media decide, to a great degree, not only the matters that come before us, but how those matters are framed. They are brokers, curators, presenters of the things of this world that say, ‘Look at this—it will be interesting and worthy of your time.’
Is there some Definer-in-Chief charged with proclaiming the defining moments of Olympic Games? Some poobah from the International Olympic Committee, or perhaps a descendent of Plato or Aristotle whose ancient Greek wisdom encompasses the eons and whose judgment on “defining moments” is beyond reproach?
Actually, no. The Definer-in-Chief here seems to have been an Associated Press reporter named Peter, though he was hardly alone in passing such a sweeping summary judgment on the importance of this incident to the 2016 Olympics. Others had weighed in in similar fashion, as a cursory Internet search a minute ago revealed.
“The other three swimmers are indefinitely being held in Rio until the case and subsequent interviews bring about more clarity on an incident that has undeniably overtaken and overshadowed the events of the second week of the Olympics.”
Hmmm…“Undeniably overtaken and overshadowed.” The entire second week!
“Their departure marked what the U.S. Olympic team hopes will be the closing stages of an incident that has embarrassed the host city, angered the police and government, unleashed a storm on social media, and dominated news coverage of South America’s first Olympics.”
Yes, “dominated the news coverage” it certainly did seem to do for a long spell, as Reuters joined fellow news outlets in assuring that self-fulfilling prophecy by…devoting huge amounts of coverage to it.
That’s about as self-reinforcing of a proclamation as it is possible to engineer in this world, various media outlets joining with others in saturation coverage of an otherwise trifling event and then proclaiming: “This event is getting saturation coverage!”
(And off there in the corner, we have a serpent eating its tail, and its tale…)
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the media pool, we have:
Usain Bolt • Katie Ledecky • Michael Phelps • The women 5,000-meter runners who collided and limped to the finish line • The entire U.S. women’s gymnastics team • Matt Centrowitz—first 1500-meter American gold in 108 years! • The Brazilian men’s soccer team, bringin’ it home in front of a delirious crowd. • Those amazing high divers, and the even more amazing Best-Athlete-in-the-World-Hands-Down (that’s an official title, and I am proclaiming it here & now…): Ashton Eaton.
I could go on.
There have been some 11,000 athletes living together in the village over the past two weeks, representing 205 countries around the world. They have participated in 42 sports totaling 306 different events, and they have done untold numbers of heroic things in those events, winners and losers alike with no doubt remarkable stories and back stories of how they managed to get where they have.
Reporters could do much worse and many less interesting things with their time and attention than talking to every one of those 11,000 story-harborers, pulling from them the unique circumstances and personalities and drives that have propelled them to this rarefied station they have occupied for these few fleeting days.
Unfortunately, we hear almost nothing from and about any of them and the precious stories they bear.
Sure, we get a few star turns on prime time, focused heavily on finding the story subject’s abiding tragedy in life. (At the tender age of most athletes, their middle-aged parents rooting madly in the stands, the media often have to settle for it being a grandparent whose ghost purportedly continues to inspire them.)
But for the most part, probably 10,500 of these Olympians performed their events in the relative obscurity of mortals everywhere, toiling away in their chosen fields out of the medal race and any mention whatsoever, save for the encouragement, care and recognition by family, teammates, coaches and friends.
But type “Ryan Lochte incident” into your search bar and behold: 7,800,000 results. (O.K., so maybe 3 or even 4 million of those don’t touch on the Rio Bathroom Brouhaha, leaving 3 or 4 million that do—feel better now?)
Probably the single most important decision that any media outlet makes on a daily basis is: What do they turn their attention to? Where will they choose to direct their focus?
Attention, in the end, is everything. Nothing gets acknowledged or encouraged or lauded or ridiculed without attention being trained on it. And media, for better and for worse, are critical directors of that attention in our lives.
The media decide, to a great degree, not only the matters that come before us, but how those matters are framed. They are brokers, curators, presenters of the things of this world that say, “Look at this—it will be interesting and worthy of your time.”
It’s an enormous responsibility, and it’s one that many media don’t shoulder very well.
Of course, it’s a rare person who can’t, when they’re being honest, say the same thing about themselves. After all, many of us choose to—or at least fall prey to—becoming deeply immersed in junk “news” of all flavors and stripes. (Where have you gone, Kardashian family? Oh…unfortunately, you’re still here…)
But it is not an inconsequential point that as consumers of the media’s chosen glare, we are complicit to some degree or other in their continuing penchant for junk news accompanied by junk analysis that no longer even seems to bother with labeling itself as “analysis.”
Instead, it offers up as a “news” story the boffo opinion that a few young adult men behaving as adolescents (Gee, when has that ever happened before?) “define” an event with at least 11,000 moving parts, all of them standing as direct contradictory testimony to any such sweeping assertion.
In today’s, tomorrow’s and the next day’s newspaper of our lives, what’s going to play above the fold on page 1, dominating our attention, as ‘the defining story’ of our day, our career, our relationships?
So once we are done with reclaiming our Olympics from those who would want to abscond with it either by protests or terrorist acts or co-opting of our experience via misbegotten “reporting,” we are left with perhaps more urgent questions as the Olympic flame is extinguished and we get back to normal sleep patterns amidst the slow-burning embers of our lives.
They are questions that the media must ask themselves daily, but which we should pay no small amount of attention to ourselves as we bring our personal version of media glare to our own lives:
What will we pay attention to today?
In today’s, tomorrow’s and the next day’s newspaper of our lives, what’s going to play above the fold on page 1, dominating our attention, as “the defining story” of our day, our career, our relationships?
What will command the bulk of our energy and attention, even as we push other items to the back of the main section, or over into features or business or sports?
Perhaps more important, who will do the “defining” of it all for us?
Our attention is in many ways the most precious commodity we have, one reason being that it determines what we do with and how we spend our time—fleeting, invaluable, never-to-be-recovered time.
Let us be wise stewards of of it, for our own and yes, the world’s sake. The world needs it.
Want an Olympic moment? Here’s an Olympic moment, in a universal langauge. “Define” it as you will…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
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