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Proper Handling of a Difficult Situation

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 13, 2008 1:41 PM

Two weeks after the tragic injury and almost immediate euthanizing of Eight Belles minutes after the filly had finished second in the Kentucky Derby, NBC Sports has decided to add an extra half hour to its Preakness coverage on Saturday to examine the ongoing issue of racetrack safety for the thoroughbreds literally risking life and limb every time they leave the starting gate.

It's exactly the right move for a network that also received somewhat mixed reviews for its coverage of Big Brown's victory in the first leg of the Triple Crown. That included some harsh criticism from my colleague, Post columnist Sally Jenkins, over NBC's decision to cut away ("cowardlike, from the sickening picture," she wrote) from Eight Belles as she lay writhing on the ground with two shattered ankles.

But in a telephone interview this week, Sam Flood, the coordinating producer of that NBC telecast, once again defended his decision not to show live or even taped video of the horse in agony, and it's difficult to find fault in his logic.

"The image of the horse on the ground is not something we wanted to put on the air," he said. "It's not something you want your kids to see. It's 6:30 at night, it's in that family viewing time. And I've had a number of notes and e-mails from people saying 'thank you for not putting that on the air. I was watching the race with my seven-year-old niece, my eight-year-old daughter, and she was crying.'

"The bottom line is that the information of the story is that the horse died. To show a visual did not change the outcome of the story. It wasn't necessary, and I wouldn't change a thing."

Flood also was criticized in some quarters for not getting to the story of the filly's breakdown until nearly two minutes of a recap of the race itself had been completed. Eight Belles was on the ground seconds after the race, and some thought NBC should have gone to and stayed with the story far sooner than it did.

"We reported that Eight Belles was down and we were trying to get as much information as we could during that 1:40," Flood said. "We had the interview with the winning jockey and the trainer and then we transitioned right into the (Eight Belles) story. We did the interview with the veterinarian (track vet Larry Bramlage) as he was getting the radio report on the progress of the horse. As soon as the decision was made to euthanize the horse, America knew it.

"As we've learned in election coverage, being first is not always being right. We were first with the right information. I still wonder what more could you do than tell the story of the horse going down, and that's what we did."

Part of the problem in telling that story was that NBC did not focus one of its eight one-on-one replay cameras on Eight Belles during the race itself. The only footage Flood had of the horse actually going down past the finish line came from a blimp shot overhead. That was aired for about ten seconds later in the broadcast, as well as a very brief long shot from across the track showing the horse being attended to by track medical personnel.

After Bramlage's live and shocking news that the horse would not survive, NBC went to a commercial. The network stayed with the Eight Belles story for several more minutes, even delaying the start of the trophy presentation to continue reporting, and then went to another commercial before heading to the winner's circle and a shift in focus back to Big Brown's impressive victory.

At that point, the juxtaposition of tragedy with triumph proved to be somewhat jarring when the network came back to a far more celebratory scene, even though host Bob Costas said afterward he had alerted most of the principals who were about to speak about the Eight Belles tragedy.

"I mentioned to the people with whom I would speak what I had just learned," Costas told the N.Y. Times. "I said 'I'm not saying you should comment, but I want you to be aware of it.'"

What happened next ought to become the textbook argument against politicians or executives from title sponsors of events ever being allowed to appear on camera again in any of these telecasts, horse racing, golf or whatever. Sadly, for many years, all the networks have rolled over and acquiesced in yielding the microphone to such foofs, mostly because they're paying all the bills.

Couldn't the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, change his text on the fly instead of saying, "each year Kentucky shows the world what a great place this is to work and live and play. And what a race we showed them today?"

Couldn't track president Bob Evans not have quite so effusively thanked all of the sponsors "and you guys at NBC?"

And couldn't David Novak, president of Yum Brands, the title sponsor, not started off by exulting "what a great day for the commonwealth of Kentucky," in what surely had to be scripted remarks prepared for him beforehand by a company PR man? In this case, he'd have been much wiser to throw out the script, just as NBC in the future would be equally smart to eliminate the clause in any contract that says a title sponsor representative must appear on camera during the telecast.

In the wake of the Derby, NBC has made some changes for this week's Preakness telecast, including having Costas come back at the end of the broadcast to offer one last defining wrap-up on the events of the day, just in case another major story happens to break out aside from the winning horse and jockey.

And Costas also will be the host of that add-on 30-minute segment at 4:30 p.m. at the start of the telecast to examine the current hot-button issue of horse safety. He'll moderate a roundtable discussion that will include Bramlage, the Churchill Downs veterinarian; Larry Jones, the trainer of Eight Belles; NBC analyst and former jockey Gary Stevens and N.Y. Times columnist William Rhoden, among others.

Sadly, Sally Jenkins wasn't invited to be among those others. That's what you might call cowardlike.

E-Mail of the Week

As a former sports journalist and current occasional reader of Deadspin, I found your article on the Buzz Bissinger/Will Leitch controversy interesting, and maybe even the most fair look at things I have seen. However, there are still a few points the mainstream sports media just keeps missing. I agree that Leitch and the Deadspin faces are being disingenuous about the nature of their blog--it is largely about belittling sports figures and others. But much of the Deadspin deriders are mis-labeling it as well. Everyone needs to face the fact that Deadspin and its umbrella blogs are something completely different than journalism.

Deadspin is largely about making fun of things. You can look down upon this if you like, and maybe you're one of the very few humans in society who gets no pleasure from mocking or belittling others. But nobody is admitting how prevalent it is in the culture. The most ironic, and funniest from my perspective, thing about the Bissinger/Leitch showdown was that when Bissinger called Leitch "like Jimmy Olsen on percocet" he was exemplifying the very feature that makes Deadspin so popular. He might as well have been commenting on somebody's blog post about Leitch. "Jimmy Olsen on percocet" sounds exactly like a Deadspin blog comment to me. I'm not mocking Bissinger for being mean-spirited; I think it's a near universal part of humanity to make jokes at the expense of others┬┐It's just the way we are.

To me, that side of the argument reeks very much of discomfort with something new, unfamiliar, and highly popular, and finding a reason to debase blogs and Deadspin, even if it takes a hypocritical stance. Please realize there is a large crossover between Bissinger's readers, your readers, and Deadspin's readers. You may see yourself as completely separate from bloggers, but realize the audience and the crossover is only going to get larger. The readers of Deadspin largely digest traditional sports journalism too, it is not an either/or proposition.

Dan Williams

Arlington

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at len.shapiro@washingtonpost.com..

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