All Commentary
Friday, April 5, 2013

Voyeurism, Censorship, and Taste

Last Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis, college student Kevin Ware broke his leg. Breaking a leg is a big deal for anyone, but it’s become a major story nationally for a few reasons: First, it was apparently the dictionary definition of the term “gruesome.” Second, it happened on national TV, during an NCAA basketball tournament game. Third, some people are annoyed that ESPN, at the very least, didn’t have footage of the break playing on a loop every two minutes. 

The last bit really bewilders me. My description is obviously a hyperbole, but not by much. In fact, the subject never would have occurred to me except that, during some aimless Internet wandering the day afterward, I stumbled across an article discussing “the media’s” handling of the footage of the injury. It's just one among many, but it sketches out the parameters of this fake controversy pretty well. 

I was astonished the next day, when the topic came up again. I’d left ESPN on in the other room for the sake of background noise and Around the Horn was starting. This is a panel show I watch sometimes to unwind when the words I’m supposed to be editing refuse to stay in one place.  

The guests—four nationally known sportswriters and a moderator/scorekeeper—were discussing, at length, whether CBS (which broadcast the game), ESPN, and “the media” at large should have shown the injury more often than it did. They brought up some other tangents. But really, this was the topic.

Which, actually, makes the whole event remarkable for another reason: For once, college sports broadcasting had shown … decent taste. As the article I linked to above describes, this opinion wasn’t shared universally. But the actual broadcasters replayed the injury just enough times to figure out what had happened (you can’t really tell from the main broadcast angle), then quit. ESPN, apparently, didn’t show a replay at all. 

What the live broadcast did show was the reactions, along with a bare-bones basic description of what had happened. Kevin Ware’s teammates, as well as his highly paid, -decorated and -haired celebrity coach, Rick Pitino (who cannot be forgiven for winning a championship with the loathsome University of Kentucky) wept openly on the court. According to some reports, at least one teammate vomited. They even showed him being taken off on a stretcher. And the cavernous (and really, borderline holy) expanse of Lucas Oil Stadium was filled up with worried silence. So, you know, the point was pretty clear: this kid was injured, and severely so, and it was just very unfortunate all the way around. 

I won’t link to a clip of the injury. I don’t want to see it, and I don’t think anyone else should. In part, I’m still scarred by a certain Sports Illustrated photo I saw in grade school (Google “Tim Krumrie leg” if you must, you sick jerk). More than that, though, watching injuries over and over again amounts to a kind of creepy, voyeuristic revel in the pain of other people. Real people. And in this case, an innocent one. There's nothing instructive in it, like there might be (might be, mind you) when the subject is some kind of psychological or emotional trauma. There's nothing, in fact, to speak in favor of wanting to see something like this.  There's a huge difference between trying to dictate matters of taste such as this and simply refusing to indulge them. Only the latter was at stake here. 

CBS apparently agreed. So did at least one ESPN announcer, who fired back at some moaning, entitled jerk on Twitter, as described in the article linked to above. The people calling the shots at those two outlets (and a few others) decided that the urge to watch this young man’s leg fold in a place where it shouldn’t did not deserve to be satisfied and refused to meet it. 

And that’s really all that’s at stake, but Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times apparently couldn’t pass up the opportunity to posture a little bit. He strongly implied that this was a borderline censorship issue. Seriously. Maybe he thought we were talking about the Nixon tapes or something.  

Anyway, Plaschke saying something sanctimonious in response to an “issue” type of subject isn’t news. But he wasn’t the only one implying that this whole issue somehow touched on serious matters of, I don’t know, journalistic integrity, or civic duty or … well, I really don’t know. The people who speak up on occasions like this are maddeningly unwilling to make their assumptions explicit. Maybe they’re incapable, having never examined them. But in this case, they all seemed to assume first that CBS had some sort of moral obligation here that was to be defined whenever they (the commentators and complainers) came across something interesting that they wanted to see over and over again. And second, they seemed to think this was an occasion for some deep skepticism—as if CBS was actually just trying to convince people that this kid was really hurt and so bore a burden of proof that only endless replays could have satisfied. 

Like I said, it’s difficult to find any sense in any of this talk, and I’m pretty sure this is just self-congratulatory posturing from people who both share in the self-mythologizing urge of the journalism profession in general and, into the bargain, figure “sports journalism” is every bit as weighty. It might be—but if true, that would either say more about the descent of journalism into PR, or stretch the credit due individual journalists over everybody who ever stunk up a press box.   

The idiocy in this case is annoying in any event. But to the degree that commentators really can’t tell the difference between a private entertainment company showing a little discretion and a serious issue of journalistic ethics is vaguely disturbing, even more so than all those people who got upset that they couldn’t watch the poor kid break his leg over and over without having to click on a link or two online. I say “vaguely” because it’s only symptomatic of a larger reluctance (or inability) to distinguish between the transmission of factual information and the advancement of a premise simply dressed up as such. When it’s just about the sports world, it really is not that big a deal. But when this idiocy manifests all over the media universe, it can provide cover for, say, calling a warmaking, opaque, power-grabbing administration by another name, and insisting this one smells sweet.