On Monday, when Diana Nyad was in the final hours of her historic swim, I was at work. I work as a web producer for a cable television news station, which means I work in a newsroom with three screens around me: two computer monitors and a television. I was handling my normal tasks – writing stories and editing photos and such – while keeping an eye on the online media coverage of Nyad’s swim.
Note that I said “online.” That’s because my television was basically worthless when it came to finding out what was going on. CNN was the only news organization that seemed to dedicate any time to Nyad, dipping in and out to give updates as to what was going on. The best stuff was happening online with live feeds courtesy of a couple of local NBC affiliates, who were streaming video from the scene live on their websites, and from social media, particularly Nyad’s team, which was very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and Miami reporter Julia Bagg, who was posting updates on Twitter as well.
After a while, I got curious and flipped over to ESPN, figuring that, hey, maybe they’d have something to say about this! After all, this is a big sporting event! The kind of thing I’d expect the Worldwide Leader of Sports to be all over, in fact. Alas, I was saddened – but not at all surprised – to see that ESPN decided that the Green Bay Packers’ decision to sign Seneca Wallace as a quarterback was more important. I checked their website, thinking that maybe I was just tuning in at the wrong time, but instead all they had was a wire story near the bottom of the Headlines section on the front page. I don’t remember what the main story is, probably because the kind of day-to-day sports coverage ESPN focuses on is the kind of sports coverage that renders me comatose in a matter of seconds.
Every channel I looked at was carrying on as if it was business as usual. Most of the news websites had wire stories. I decided to stick with CNN, but then when the moment of truth came, CNN was showing a long view of the crowd on Smathers Beach. My Twitter feed was erupting with jubilation, while the hosts kept on talking as if she was still swimming. They didn’t get confirmation that her swim was over until they spoke with a woman on the beach who told them that she had made it. Can I just repeat that? They did not know the swim was over until a woman walking past told them it was. But you know, at least they tried. MSNBC was airing an episode of “Chained to My Ex” while Fox News was probably freaking out over Obamacare again. TVNewser reports that Fox got around to reporting her feat about an hour after it happened.
After everything had settled down, I was left with the impression was that decision makers in the nation’s newsrooms failed to grasp the momentous nature of what was happening, and they also underestimated the world’s interest in Nyad’s accomplishment. The fact that so many news outlets began paying close attention after the fact was proof to me that they were caught off-guard by this.
(That said, espnW? Was all over it. I’m a huge fan of espnW, and it’s not just because they cover female athletes, but because they expand their reach beyond the obvious sports, like basketball, soccer and tennis, to give some love to things like mountain biking, wakeboarding and triathlon. I ❤ you, espnW! Don’t ever change!)
Now, I will say that I understand that there were logistical issues that a non-media professional would probably not be aware of. For one, this was a holiday weekend, which means a lot of newsrooms were probably short-staffed and so they had to allocate their resources accordingly. There’s the fact that she was landing on Key West, which is not an easy place to get to, especially during holidays. (Anyone who has ever gotten stuck behind a truck towing a boat while on U.S. 1 can attest to this.) Then there was the fact that this was her fourth attempt in two years, and that managers probably assumed that this was going to be another quixotic attempt so why bother? I suspect that CNN sent a crew from their Miami bureau as soon as they realized that odds were in fact quite good that she would be successful this time.
I almost don’t blame the news organizations for being caught flat-footed on this. I wish they would have done better, but I understand why they didn’t. Maybe I’m cutting them some slack because I work in the industry? Probably. I can acknowledge my own biases and admit that maybe I’m being myopic as a result.
But ESPN? The Worldwide Leader in Sports? They all but ignored one of the biggest sports stories of the year in favor of obsessing over the minutiae of professional football. (Maybe that’s part of their relationship with the NFL, along with pulling out of doing actual journalism if it runs the risk of making the league look bad.) That is just astounding to me, and truly it sums up so much of what I dislike about mainstream sports culture in the United States, which is that we idolize a handful of men who are good at playing one of a few select sports, and we basically ignore everyone else. And don’t get me started on the absurdity of the fact that “being really into sports” usually means one watches hours of sports programming but doesn’t actually play any sports yourself.
Do I think the lack of live coverage about Diana Nyad’s swim was fueled by a general indifference to female athletes? I don’t know. I have to say that I think the fact that she’s an endurance swimmer is probably a more likely culprit. After all, endurance swimming is a sport where records and milestones are being set all the time but if you don’t pay attention to specific corners of the internet, you’d never know that any of this was happening at all. Certainly there is a huge gender-based discrepancy when it comes to sports media coverage, especially when you consider the way commentators will spend more time talking about a single football game than it actually takes to play the game itself while barely mentioning women’s basketball or soccer, but there’s also a huge discrepancy when it comes the kind of sports that get play. The big four – and occasionally golf and tennis – get the obsessive-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness coverage, and everyone else can go fuck yourself, at least until it’s time for the Olympics, when we’ll talk about how inspiring and awesome and hardworking you all are again.
As a sports fan who doesn’t much care to watch football and as an athlete myself, I find all of this incredibly frustrating. If you ask sports fans why they love to watch sports, they’ll tell you they love the drama of it, they love the passion, the fearlessness, the beauty of seeing physical bodies doing these difficult things for which they’ve been highly trained to do. But we have become so locked into this sports-entertainment industrial complex and all of the money it makes for a handful of elites, that when something actually happens that embodies all of the things we love about sports, no one is there to cover it. Maybe if Tim Tebow had been there or if Miley Cyrus had humped a foam finger, we might have gotten some live coverage. Who knows.
I’m not the only one who was frustrated and irritated by this. I’ve seen other discussions of this elsewhere on the internet. In addition, here’s a great post that just came across my Facebook feed that talks about this too, in the context of the missed opportunity to show a woman doing something magnificent. And I think a comment in this article about an Oregon woman who completed the Oceans Seven is relevant here as well:
Thanks, Conner, for bringing us the story of yet another human being that makes our society a more interesting, more exciting place. Her accomplishments are great, and I hope she has many more.
The point of the media is not just to tell about all of the terrible things that happen around us – the murders and the war and the child rapes and all that – and it’s not supposed to be just about making as much money as possible for our corporate overlords. It’s to reflect the world back to us as accurately as possible, and part of being accurate is to show that people are also capable of wondrous things, of committing acts of goodness and beauty, of achieving incredible, awe-inspiring feats. They had a clear opportunity to do precisely that, and they failed.