NBC ought to hang its collective head in shame. Its nearly three hours of coverage of yesterday's Kentucky Derby just about completely ignored the news.
Yes, Big Brown, the overwhelming favorite, won the race by nearly five lengths. But meanwhile, there was a horse -- Eight Belles, a filly who made a valiant run and came in second -- that was being killed on the track. In the several minutes after the race, viewers saw brief, faraway shots of horse ambulances and various other vehicles and a miscued interview with the veterinarian on call, who was busy on his walkie-talkie. When they finally got back to the veterinarian, he announced tersely that the horse had broken both front ankles and had had to be "euthanized."
So, okay, I can understand them not showing millions of viewers visuals of a gorgeous thoroughbred writhing in agony. But what I can't understand (and, please, I am not a rabid animal rights advocate -- I actually like horseracing on occasion) is their complete failure to tell the story.
The news here (and Bob Costas used to fancy himself a journalist) was the dead filly. How did this happen? Could the jockey have done anything? Were there any signs in the horse's prior medical history that could have foretold this? How often does something like this happen? How did they euthanize the horse? Is this a no-brainer decision, or is there some specialist somewhere that would have made a stab at saving this horse?
I -- and I'm sure millions of others watching -- was curious. I wanted answers. And I got none.
The purpose of broadcast journalism -- like all journalism -- is to inform. And NBC, its announcers and producers failed miserably. After nearly three hours of vote-for-your-favorite-hat and celebrity interviews, the least they could have done, when an actual news story occurred, was to cover it. Completely, coherently and clearly. I feel sure that had there been a tornado that ripped through the track or a collapse of the stands, NBC would have jumped into action and reported the hell out of the story.
So, what's going on here? Why the blackout?
Well, first, all of Kentucky and NBC is invested in a "fun" Derby Day. Why else do they add a half-hour of "red carpet coverage" to a two-hour telecast of what is only seconds more than a two-minute sporting event? The "fun" part was Big Brown, a possible Triple Crown contender, his braggart owner and his runaway victory. Not the dead horse on the track.
Second, NBC has a huge investment in Derby coverage -- one that it used to promote its own Olympics extravaganza this summer and, more important, one that it's locked into until 2010. It cannot afford to send its viewer home, thinking that horses actually die in the Derby.
So, a major news network basically pretends there is no dead horse on the track, wasting a totally teachable moment, refusing to answer the myriad questions that occurred to at least this viewer.
NBC's performance was abysmal. Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and John Chancellor must be spinning in their graves. Bob Costas should be mortified. And what are we, the viewers, to do to make sure we get the story of the next elephant in the room?