Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There is an "I" in Olympics

“What a gift she's given us.” - Sandra Bezic, NBC, 2/23/2010

Joannie Rochette's story is truly sad. She comes to Vancouver as a potential medalist in the ladies' figure skating event, in an Olympics held in her home country. And her mother arrives to see her skate, then passes away before the competition begins. The juxtaposition of what should be the greatest moment in this athlete's life with one of the greatest personal tragedies one can endure makes for an almost unbearable poignancy.

Rochette chooses to skate, and, in last night's short program, skates very well and ends up scoring enough points to put her in third place at this point.

As she comes off the ice, Sandra Bezic, one of NBC's skating experts, utters the quote above. I'm willing to cut her some slack, in that stupid things can be said in the excitement of the moment, but later, during the post-competition wrap-up, she essentially repeats herself.

I could spend some time unpacking this quote, but, if you can't see the fatuousness of it, no amount of explaining is going to help. To suggest that Rochette skated for us, rather than for herself, or her father (misidentified by NBC, corrected only far after they had milked the pathos out of it), or for the memory of the mother who had supported her through her quest for a dream, strikes me as amazingly inappropriate.

But I'm not surprised.


There are, I think, two schools of thought as to how sports commentary should work. There are those who believe that the role of the analyst is to, well, analyze and explain and teach. The audience should gain insight into how these accomplishments are done, into what distinctions are made by judges, into what separates mediocre from good from excellent. The analyst, who was a practitioner or teacher or both (Bezic herself was an excellent pairs skater with her brother, then became a top choreographer), can lead us through even unfamiliar sports and, while not necessarily deluging us with minutiae, lead us into a greater understanding and appreciation of these feats.

I'm reminded of the great Al DeRogatis, who called football for NBC in the '60s and '70s. He had been a fine player, and, in the booth, broke down football in great technical detail, allowing the viewer to understand some of the intricacies of the game. One could learn a lot from DeRogatis. But after 1975, he was out, because the new breed of broadcaster had come.

The other kind of commentator is the one who attempts to create excitement, who tries to convey a picture of what it feels like to be there. He or she might sprinkle in the occasional technical term to prove their bona fides, but that's mere seasoning in the stew of emotion that they're trying to cook up. (In football, they might mention a Cover 2 defense, but they'll never take the time, or risk viewer boredom, by actually explaining what that is.)

There are some who can play both roles. John Madden, particularly in his early days as a broadcaster, could convey with a kind of verbal shorthand what the game felt like ("Boom"), but also provide some real insight broken into 15 to 20-second chunks.

But that's all gravy, especially in something like the Olympics where we thrill to events to which we'll pay absolutely no attention until 3 years and 50 weeks from now when the next Winter Games come along. I'm certain that NBC is making a concerted effort to provide us with 99% feel, 1% information, and that's the way they're going to do it (and perhaps they have research to indicate that they get higher ratings when they handle it that way).

The problem is, of course, that facts can get in the way of the narrative excitement. Snowboardcross and skicross are the two newest additions to the Winter Olympics, and they can be exciting in the final rounds when four athletes are on the course at the same time, jostling for position.

However, qualifying for these sports is really, really boring. A course that presents numerous challenges when two competitors are an elbow shove away from each other seems to be of little interest when only one person is going down. But, in NBC terms, these sports are NEW! EXCITING! THRILL RIDES! So we're not told that the men have 33 skicrossers competing for, yes, 32 positions. The women, 35 for 32. The announcers were careful to stay away from mentioning that nothing much is at stake.

So we end up with powerful incentives to "go surface," to hype and emotionalize everything instead of explaining. NBC hires nominal experts, then has them ignore their expertise in favor of creating a word picture of the experience.

But what happens when they hire people who can't do that, who have impressive resumes but no ability to convey the ambiance of the competition?

We know what happens - we the viewers are subjected to the train wreck that is the team of Sandra Bezic and Scott Hamilton. Hamilton, a man I think very highly of for his personal story and his charitable work, is possibly the worst "analyst" working for any major sports network. Bezic is better only because she shuts up more often (with execrable lapses like the quote above).

The problem, I think, is that they don't the narrative gifts to deliver to us a sense of what it's like to be there. Instead, they substitute their own feelings. So we don't get, "Triple lutz, triple toe loop, well done with a small turnout on the landing." We get Hamilton's "TRIPLE LUTZ...TRIPLE TOE...OH, HE FOUGHT FOR IT, BUT HE GOT IT!!!" And that's actually a high point in content for our Scotty.

Everything is filtered through the prism of their emotions. To some, it might seem more vivid, but it far more often comes off as information-free blather that appeals neither to our brains (because there's no content) nor to our hearts (because we really don't care how Sandra and Scott feel about things).

One might have thought this reached its peak in the 2002 Olympics, when Bezic told us she was "ashamed for our sport" when her favored fellow Canadian pairs team was, in her opinion, underscored. National jingoism aside, this was the apotheosis of her self-importance, as scandal, duplicate gold medals, and a new judging system followed. It's hard to avoid feeling that Bezic began to overestimate her impact after this, leading her to think that she really was a major mover and shaker in figure skating.

So we end up with the most subjective look possible, one which asks us to think more about the announcers than about the event. And we get fatuous quotes like the one from Bezic, which tells us nothing except that she feels that Joannie Rochette skated for the good of Sandra Bezic. And the "we" just makes it worse, as this hack "analyst" attempts to include us in this most inappropriate feeling possible.

NBC really needs to take a look at this team and see if there isn't some talent somewhere that could do a halfway-competent job.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The two great myths of health care - part 1

I'm returning from my self-imposed exile because I'm finally fed up with the rhetoric surrounding the endless and, almost certainly, failed bid to create a health care plan that will actually help Americans at a reasonable cost. Having read endless amounts of prose on the two sides over the past year, I don't need to articulate the very real concerns that the right has over these proposed plans (of course, 95% of everything they've said is garbage - death panels? - but worrying about future costs is perfectly reasonable), because they seem to be carrying the day.

No, I have a problem with the left, particularly that segment of the left which says, "We're not getting everything we wanted at the beginning, but it's still a good start; let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good." I'm with them up to a point. I think something should be done, and the bills that are on the table represent some progress toward treating health care, to some level, as a right of citizenship rather than just another consumer good.

But it is profoundly unhelpful to advance arguments that are wildly speculative and questionable as justification for passing such major legislation. And, as I've had the opportunity to read and ponder much of the rhetoric, I've identified two such arguments that are seen as "proof" that we must move ahead with what's on the table. In this post I'll take up the first: the idea that whatever is passed will inevitably be improved in the near term, so we better get the ball rolling.

Any number of bloggers and pundits have taken up this idea, this utopian vision of "It must get better, so let's get started." Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, et al seem honestly to believe that flawed legislation will inevitably be followed by better legislation ad infinitum, that somewhere in the future we will end up with a near-perfect system in which everyone gets what they deserve and no one has any problems. This viewpoint is exemplified by a Kevin Drum post from today:
In 20 years this bill will be entirely forgotten except as the first step toward broad national healthcare. The excise tax, the public option, the subsidy levels, the exchange — all forgotten because they will have been steadily replaced by an entirely different infrastructure. It's true that some of that infrastructure will be path dependent on the details of the current bill, but most will simply evolve as a result of technology and public demand. By 2030 arguments over the public option will seem as antiquated as rants against the tin trust.
Wow, that sounds great. But do these folks have any evidence to offer along this route to perfection? Well, they love to cite both Medicare and Social Security, which started out in limited ways, requiring years of pressure and legislation to achieve their current status.

And I will admit that these programs, each of which were thought wanting in their original creation, have been refined over the years and become closer to their original intent. And national health care kind of looks like those programs, so it is natural (if somewhat pat) to believe that the arc of development will be the same.

However, the rationalist must then look more broadly, across all government programs, and must ask: "Has that been the fate of all large-scale government programs? Do they inevitably start out small and limited, and grow to something wonderful over time?"

The answer must, alas, be no. I'm sure there were people who felt that our periodic stabs at creating better schools would eventually lead to, yes, better schools. And some of those people have been waiting for three generations to see those schools improve, and they're still waiting. The war on poverty was going to stamp out the injustices that prevent people from achieving their dreams, and it is a war as yet unwon.

There is very little evidence that there is political tide which inevitably makes bad or flawed legislation into good policy; there are numerous examples on both sides of that ledger. I'd like to see those who are willing to settle for whatever Washington may eventually pass to concede that it may not ever get a whole lot better than what we start with. If there are flaws in National Health Care 2010, they may well still be there in 2030 (and 2050...), and we had better be prepared to live with that. [The other myth later...]

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