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Mainstream media pays for its blind idolatry

Lance Armstrong is shown in this file picture taken September 22, 2010.


You have to admit, the Lance Armstrong story was a good yarn. Cancer survivor kicks Euro butt in cycling, raises jillions for cancer, dates loopy folk singer for a while, has everybody wearing a rubber yellow wristband. No wonder mainstream media took this guy and his derailleur to its bosom.

The problem was that, even from the beginning, Armstrong's credibility was thinner than the new iPhone. His accomplishments rested on a drug alibi that smelled worse than his bicycle seat on a hot day in the Pyrenees. In a sport where all of his top competitors admitted to drug use, Armstrong was allegedly still clean. When his teammates and friends outed him, he angrily dissembled.

The Gods of Feelgood journalism wanted this story in the worst way. Their virtuous voices in the mainstream media gave Armstrong a hall pass for his charity work and all-round grooviness. He won The Associated Press and ESPN's male athlete of of the year four times each. Sports Illustrated named him sportsman of the year for 2002. BBC, ABC and Reuters similarly honoured him.

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Now, with the Armstrong fable debunked by a mountain of evidence, mainstream media is left to sort through its misspent enthusiasm for the guy in the yellowing jersey. Some are still unrepentant, saying the good outweighed the bad. "Maybe I am the one who is blind, but I take him at his word and don't believe it," says Buzz Bissinger, who obtained an exclusive interview Wednesday for Newsweek from Armstrong. "He still passed hundreds of drug tests, many of them given randomly. But even if he did take enhancers, so what?"

This would be the "Mussolini made the trains run on time" rationale.

Most others are left feeling like the frog that offers a scorpion a ride across a stream. Halfway there, the scorpion fatally stings the frog, who asks plaintively, "How could you reward my trust by killing me?" To which the scorpion says, "Hey, I'm a scorpion. It's what I do."

Armstrong believes, like Bissinger, that his ends justified the means. Besides, everyone else was dirty, he was just keeping up with the hypodermics. If he took down a few writers and broadcasters, "So what?" (as Bissinger would say).

The Gods of Feelgood journalism wanted this story in the worst way. That's how they got it. And it looks good on them now as they wear it.

9.79* seconds Which leads us to Canada's version of this same story. Namely, Ben Johnson's positive drug test at the 1988 Olympics after winning the 100-metre gold medal. ESPN presented a powerful 30 for 30 documentary entitled 9.79* last Tuesday about Johnson's dénouement. ( 9.79* showed Thursday on TSN.)

It features Johnson and the seven other men in the Race of the Century who lost that day. Five of them have since either tested positive themselves or been implicated in a drug scandal. Hearing them speak from across the decades in 9.79* is sports journalism of the top rank.

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As opposed to Armstrong, Johnson was an easy mark for the mainstream media. Black, inarticulate, Canadian, unaffiliated with a noble cause such as cancer research. It was too easy to make Johnson carry the steroid stigma for his sport and the Olympics. As opposed to Armstrong, Johnson finally owned his guilt. Fat load of good it did him or sprinting.

It would take another 15 years – and Marion Jones' scandal – for the United States to finally confront the reality of that date in Seoul. Meanwhile, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner, now deceased, were allowed to wear gold. If only Johnson had a wrist band to sell. He'd still be a hero to a lot of people.

OLYMPICS REDUX We told you about the ratings struggles of NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) in the United States. After record numbers for its Olympics coverage this summer from London, NBCSN has fallen on hard times. It's down to close friends and relatives watching some nights. This was only made worse when the NHL, NBCSN's biggest property, decided to circle the labour wagons and start shooting inward.

NBC has privately been making its concerns known to the NHL about what the hockey league is doing to its suffering cable operation, which has already had nine games through Oct. 24 whizzed by the commissioner. What's a poor network to do?

Show the Olympics again. Starting next Monday, NBCSN will rebroadcast may of the top U.S. moments from NBC's coverage of the Games. That includes soccer games (wonder who the U.S. women will be playing?), swim events, track highlights and some of the best studio interviews conducted during the Games. Good thing for NBC this time, it won't get ripped for time-delaying all the best bits.

So far, TSN has no intention of reliving the Games from a Canadian point of view. But if hockey analyst Bob McKenzie runs out of words before the lockout ends, you could see that decision revisited.

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Rich Hammond has just resigned as the official blogger of the Los Angeles Kings website. Seems he interviewed locked-out King Kevin Westgarth the other day. That led the NHL to insist that the interview be taken off the King website as Hammond is technically an NHL employee and, well, players are LOCKED OUT, dammit! (If you want to know what the NHL does to chatty employees during a lockout, just consult Detroit exec Jimmy Devallano who was heavily fined for talking labour matters during the lockout.)

The Kings, who'd given Hammond editorial freedom, protested to no avail. So Hammond took a job covering football with the Orange County register. And something in media freedom just rolled over and breathed its last.

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