Oprah Winfrey’s pathetic excuse of an interview with Lance Armstrong shown on her cable TV network last night (Part 2 is to be screened tonight but somehow I think I’ll give it a miss) is both a timely reminder of just how poorly the US media covered the Lance Armstrong scandal down the years and a classic example of the fatal nexus that exists between the media and big business in America.
A fascinating piece in today’s New York Times makes it clear that the unspoken issue uppermost in the minds of la Winfrey and her business partners when they signed up the disgraced cyclist for the interview was less the journalism of the story – how they would handle the sports scandal of this and arguably last century so that the truth would be exposed – but more the ratings and advertising revenue boost the Lance Armstrong interview could give her ailing cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network which she founded two years ago and which has been in financial distress ever since.
In a sense this is absolutely appropriate because from the beginning the Lance Armstrong story has really been about money, about corporate profits, about feathering Lance Armstrong’s nest and about a largely corporate media unwilling to ask too loudly whether the goose that laid the golden egg was actually a cheating cuckoo which had no right squatting in that particular nest.
Money explains why it has taken so long to bring Lance Armstrong to something approaching justice and it explains why the American media was the last in the world to recognise the truth of the Lance Armstrong fraud. The US media of the 1970’s would, I suspect, have done that job in quick order but not its modern, corporate-beholden cousins.
It cannot entirely be an accident that the Lance Armstrong story almost exactly parallels chronologically that other story that the US media, with one or two noble exceptions, failed to investigate or challenge, the story of the non-existent Iraq WMD’s. What links those two failures is the fact that the media of today is essentially a corporate media, owned and controlled by vast industrial and commercial behemoths whose interests in the bottom line erases concern for journalistic truth, which puts profits and market share ahead of integrity and which elevates timidity and mediocrity above principle and courage. In a very important way the Lance Armstrong story is also the story of the decline and disorder that afflicts the American media.
The first thing that the media of thirty or forty years ago would have done, I believe, would have been to show a great deal more scepticism about the defining Lance Armstrong narrative. This was the claim that a man who had just survived a harrowing bout of brain, lung and testicular cancer, whose previous track record as a cyclist suggested an athlete who could at most become a good one-day competitor and whose previous best performance at the Tour before his cancer struck was 35th position, had suddenly, almost overnight, been transformed into the most talented star the Tour de France had ever seen.
Was it really believable that in 1999, within a couple of years of his fight with near terminal cancer, Armstrong not only could win the gruelling 23-day, 2,300 mile Tour de France with its daunting stages through the Alps and Pyrenees but then go on to repeat that triumph for a further six consecutive years. Really? Just how credible a story could that possibly be? Why weren’t the antennae of American journalists trembling with suspicion, as they most definitely were in Europe? It is actually extraordinary to realise now that America’s media by and large happily and uncritically accepted this nonsense for so long!
The story was just too good to be true and any journalist with integrity would and should have suspected that and at the very least tested it for flaws. But in America in those early Armstrong years, and indeed right up until quite recently, the media attitude was characterised not just by a failure and/or a refusal to do that but chauvinistic hostility towards any who did. That and fear of going near a story that could bring criticism and trouble.
Armstrong’s own advisers were well aware of his limitations, so why weren’t the media. As he recovered from cancer his agent and lawyer Bill Stapleton, nursed appropriately modest ambitions for Armstrong. Stapleton’s goal was an Olympic Gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, perfect for a good one-day rider, but with the marketing potential of the Armstrong story nonetheless at the forefront of his mind.
As Stapleton told Sports Illustrated in April 1998: ‘Bristol-Myers Squibb makes the three cancer chemo agents that saved Lance’s life. Imagine the PR hit the company could get from having Lance advertise their products. Right now, it’s an incredible story the guy beat cancer.’
But with a little help from the blood oxygen boosting agent, EPO, Armstrong was to exceed those modest expectations beyond Bill Stapleton’s wildest imagination, although Stapleton was dead right about the marketing potential of the Armstrong cancer narrative.
What Bill Stapleton and Lance Armstrong provided was a Hollywood-scale myth, such a feel-good story about triumph over adversity that to challenge it was, like asking if those pesky WMD’s really were hidden somewhere in the Iraqi desert, almost un-American. It certainly wasn’t the cycling, a sport that rates alongside Winter Rodeo in popularity; no, it was about Lance Armstrong beating cancer and going on to win. An American story, unique, fabled and brave.
And Bill Stapleton was right. The story was a sponsor’s wet dream come true. The impact of Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999 in America was instantaneous and sensational. Three days after crossing the line in Paris, Armstrong’s new sponsors, Nike hired an executive jet to fly him back to New York and he spent the next day giving an endless series of television interviews, starting at 5.45 am on CBS This Morning and ending on the David Letterman show late that night. America was transfixed and enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. The myth had been born and soon the brand would follow.
Almost immediately some of America’s largest and best known corporations lined up to hire him as their public face. The list of companies that have used Lance Armstrong to sell their products reads like a Who’s Who of American business: Nike Corporation, the US Postal Service, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Trek cycles, Subaru, General Motors, The Discovery Channel, Hewlett-Packard, AMD microprocessors, FRS health drinks, 24 Hour Fitness, the Outdoor Living Network, the NHL, Flex Jet, Dicks Sporting Goods, Power Bar and American Century Investments.
It also made Lance Armstrong a multimillionaire celebrity whose fame brought him the friendship of the likes of Presidents Bush (41 and 43) and Clinton. He socialised with stars like Bono, Robin Williams, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Muhammad Ali, Barbara Walters and Nicolas Sarkozy. He became a regular item in tabloid gossip columns as the squire of beautiful starlets like Kate Hudson, Ashley Olson and Sheryl Crow. During the 2008 election campaign both Barack Obama and John McCain taped supportive messages for Armstrong’s cancer charity.
Corporate America drooled over Armstrong. Coca-Cola’s North America’s CMO, Javier Benito had this to say about him: ‘Lance is an incredible inspiration for his spirit and confidence on and off the bike, which is a perfect fit with the active, optimistic personality of the Dasani brand’. (Dasani is a brand of bottled water marketed by Coca-Cola that the company eventually admitted was just tap water, another fraud)
As more victories at the Tour de France piled on top of each other, Lance Armstrong’s commercial value to his sponsors grew while his marketability showed little sign of fading, even after he retired from professional cycling in 2005. By that year his income from endorsements and advertising was over $17 million, the eighth highest amongst American athletes.
His enduring appeal to marketing and advertising executives could be seen from the results of a series of business surveys: a canvass of 213 sports marketing executives in April 2007 placed Armstrong in the ten top athletes alongside ‘Magic’ Johnson, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
His ‘Q’ scores, a measurement of consumer awareness developed by Market Evaluations Inc in 1963, have grown not shrunk with time, from 72 per cent in 2003, to 79 per cent in 2007 and then to 93 per cent in 2008; in September 2008, Armstrong topped the list of most influential celebrities among executives who decide their companies’ spend on good causes, ahead of Angelina Jolie, Bono, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, George Clooney and Michael J Fox.
As a professional speaker, Armstrong commanded the same $200,000 fee demanded by the likes of Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Crystal, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. AllAmericaSpeakers has no doubt where his appeal comes from: ‘If scripted by Hollywood, the story would be dismissed as a trite melodrama. A deadly disease strikes a promising athlete. Despite desperately thin odds, he manages not only to beat the affliction but also to return to the sport and win its top prize. Unbelievable, except it’s true.’ (Except it wasn’t)
In Europe, journalists like David Walsh of the Sunday Times, his colleague Paul Kimmage and French writer, Pierre Ballister of L’Equipe were by the early and mid-2000’s openly questioning the Lance Armstrong narrative and revealing claims of extensive EPO use by Armstrong and his team mates. These were, however, the years of Freedom Fries , ‘Old Europe’ and journalists happily embedding themselves with troops who would soon be setting snarling dogs on piles of naked Iraqi prisoners.
And so in America, Lance Armstrong’s ‘feel-good’ story was scarcely ruffled by David Walsh and his ilk. Typical of much of the media response to their reportage was Sports Illustrated’s take on the claims that Armstrong took EPO: ‘Of all those specimens (blood specimens taken during the Tour de France), how many tested positive for drugs? Zero. O.K., he does admit to having used one banned substance: EPO. But it was part of the cocktail of medications that kept him from dying of cancer. Even after the doping investigation closed this year for lack of a single Q-tip of evidence, French fans still stood at the top of Mont Ventoux in July as Armstrong passed, hollering, “Dope! Dope!” To the French, doping and chemotherapy: la meme chose.’
Or Jon Stewart on The Daily Show after a 2005 story appeared in L’Equipe saying that Armstrong’s urine samples from past Tours, which had been stored untested by the Tour authorities since 1999, had been recently found to show traces of EPO use: ‘I don’t care if you found out that he has a jet engine in his anus. He’s the best that’s ever been. Leave it alone.’ (I wonder will Jon Stewart ever re-run that segment?)
Lance Armstrong had not only become an American myth but a brand as well. And brands make money, lots of it, not just for the owner but all those who link their brands to it, like the Nike’s, the Coca-Cola’s, the Hewlett-Packard’s, the Dicks Sporting Goods and so on. And these are the corporations that buy adverts on the Cable channels and the Networks or the magazines and newspapers that are these days owned by vast corporations whose paramount interest is the bottom line not principled journalism.
And so who in the news and current affairs divisions or sports departments in any of the media outfits owned by these corporations is going to make the career-ending decision to probe Lance Armstrong’s dope-taking practices and threaten all that advertising revenue? Which of them would dare challenge an American myth and incur the wrath of bosses and public alike? The questions answers themselves but I’d bet that with the media of thirty or forty years ago, they’d be different answers.
As America’s journalists parse and analyse Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong this week, they might also spare some time to put their own conduct under the microscope and ask themselves this question: “How sooner would Lance Armstrong have been brought to book if America’s media had done its job?” The truth is that alongside the Iraq WMD story, the failure to expose Lance Armstrong’s years of taking dope is one of the most shameful chapters in modern American media history.