Fatal overkill

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Kobe Bryant’s most significant appearance in New Zealand media last year was a website rebuke after he called out a member of his daughter’s basketball team for missing a game to attend a dance recital. Last week the L.A. Lakers All-star and his daughter were tragically killed in a helicopter crash and New Zealand broadcasters treated his death like the passing of a national hero. Our national hero.

Both television networks led last Monday’s 6 pm bulletin with news of the crash. OneNews ran a full 15 minutes – almost a third of the 47-minute programme – and RNZ’s Checkpoint devoted a similar amount of time to his death.

Contrast that with the death of Mike Moore on Sunday. The former New Zealand prime minister, ambassador and head of the World Trade Organisation warranted less than five minutes on One News although Newshub was a little more generous at about six and a half minutes.

There is absolutely no doubt that the fatal crash near Los Angeles was a tragedy. Kobe Bryant was the Lakers’ all-time highest scorer and an Olympic gold medallist. His daughter was showing the promise that could have taken her to a professional basketball career.

However, basketball is a minor sport in New Zealand (we field only eight regional and one national basketball teams) and the NBA has a niche audience outside anything that Steven Adams may do with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Add to that the fact that Kobe Bryant has been retired since 2016.

The New Zealand broadcast reaction to his death was out of all proportion to his significance to the wider Kiwi audience.

Our newspapers had a better balance. Coverage on the day following the crash was confined to the sports section in the New Zealand Herald. The Dominion-Post, Press and Waikato Times all had the same double-column sports story and the Otago Daily Times kept the bulk of its inside coverage in the sports section. Only the Stuff newspapers’ editorial cartoon suggested any greater significance ­– a tear dropping from a basketball hoop.

The following day saw further outpourings of grief on our screens and, although our print media can’t resist a good grief story, they accorded it less prominence than their television counterparts.

Why should television and print be so different?

The most likely reason is the special relationship that sport has with broadcasting.

In 1984 communications professor Sut Jhally coined the term ‘the sports/media complex’ and traced its origins back to the late 19th century when competing newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and  Joseph Pulitzer latched onto sport as a way of increasing audience. However, the sports/media complex and the commercial relationship between sports promoters and media really came into its own with the growth of broadcasting – first radio and then (and most significantly) television. The audience became a commodity, just like the players themselves. And the supremacy of television in being able to deliver the game to the living room made it a prime focus for advertising, to the detriment of newspaper sports sections. Today, you’re lucky to find an advertisement in them.

Television therefore has an attitude to sport that is unmatched by any other medium, although radio may be influenced by past glories and the golden days when the nation was mesmerised by a hissing overseas broadcast of Winston McCarthy intoning “Listen… Listen… It’s a goal!”

In short, broadcasters see sport and those who participate in it as more important than they really are.

Or perhaps I have it all wrong.

Forty years ago, Richard Lipsky wrote a book titled How We Play the Game: Why sports dominate American life. In it he stated that sports have ‘a vice-like grip on the emotions.’ While there is nothing particularly revelatory about that, he went on to say: “At a time when political involvement is suspect, politicians vilified and the legitimacy of the major social institutions is questioned, sports enthusiasm increases in both scope and intensity. The sportsworld more than any other phenomenon dominates the consciousness and everyday lives of millions of Americans.”

Today, all of that sounds depressingly familiar and the Trump malaise has an equally depressing international reach. Are broadcasters simply reflecting the priorities that New Zealanders, too, are giving to different aspects of life?

We may be a sports-mad lot but I doubt very much that we would put a higher priority on a retired foreign basketball player (with a paid-off sexual assault allegation against his name) than we would on the looming prospect of a coronavirus pandemic. Last Monday both television networks did exactly that.

I thought that after 55 years in journalism I would have a good idea of what constituted legitimate news values. However, I concede that what now pass for news values sometimes leave me dismayed.

I’m not puzzled by the rush to entertain, to give the public what they want (even if it is not what they need). That is part of traditional media’s inability to control, rather than be controlled by, digital technology. Sport is entertainment writ large.

Nor do I scratch my balding pate over the emotional drivers that, for the same reason, pervade front page and top-of-bulletin choices. In fact, I concede that as editor of the New Zealand Herald I was heard to say ‘Never under-estimate the power of death’ after the passing of a prominent New Zealand was relegated to an inside page (it is to my enduring regret that I did not add the rider ‘but keep it in proper perspective’).

Last Monday New Zealand health authorities began screening passengers on every flight from China for symptoms of an infection that had already killed 82 people. I would have thought there were enough emotional drivers in that story to lead a bulletin.

I was wrong. DEATH PLUS SPORT proved an irresistible combination.

2 thoughts on “Fatal overkill

  1. Fair comment, Gavin. I love sport—especially rugby and cricket (even though the latter has come unde4 some strain recently), But it has to be local (NZ) sport as I have nil interest in British soccer or American basketball or the ridiculous spectacle called Superbowl. Who is making these editorial decisions at TVNZ?

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