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Wherever tears glistened at the Centennial Olympics, it seemed
sure that NBC's cameras would be there to record them for
posterity. They could be the tears of joy that brimmed in
President Clinton's eyes as he watched a gold medal performance,
or the tears streaming down the cheeks of girl gymnasts whose
hearts had just been broken by failure. Either way, emotional
spillage was good theater, and good theater was what the network
intended to give America. How strange, how troubling, that when
there really was a time to cry last Saturday, NBC went dry.

Nearly 18 hours after a deadly pipe bomb broke up the party in
Atlanta's Centennial Park, an NBC Nightly News reporter named
Bob Dotson told his audience, "On this misty day, there were few
tears." Nothing that went before or after Dotson's account
suggested that anybody at the network disagreed. But a woman
from Albany, Ga., had been killed by the blast, and a Turkish TV
cameraman had died of a heart attack in his rush to cover the
tragedy, and the nation was staggered by this latest glimpse of
the danger zone it has become. In truth, there was an ocean of
tears to be cried.

At the start of the day NBC appeared to understand, as Tom
Brokaw led its coverage from 2:20 a.m. till just before noon,
when he briefly teamed with Bob Costas to make sense of the
fragments of information that were surfacing. Maybe NBC reacted
defensively, after both CNN and ESPN scooped its enormous
Atlanta contingent by 10 minutes on the bombing story. But once
the network began its scheduled telecast of the Games
themselves, at midday, the bomb became almost an afterthought.
Not until Brokaw returned to do the Nightly News did the tragedy
reassume its importance. Unfortunately, Brokaw couldn't offer
anything that CNN hadn't delivered hours before. And that was no
way to meet journalistic responsibility now that evil had
intruded on the heroism and goodwill in which NBC has invested
millions upon millions of dollars.

To keep up with the story as it unfolded ever so slowly, the
network needed only to punctuate each hour of its Olympic
coverage with a brief update. Two or three minutes would have
been sufficient to stay even with CNN while avoiding the
all-news network's man-on-the-street padding. Then NBC's viewers
would have learned that the FBI had an early take on the bomb
and the bomber, that an Atlanta Olympics official was flinching
at tough questions and that surgeons were putting the wounded
back together. It seemed the obvious thing to do, particularly
with the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 still being pulled from the
water. But NBC went with beach volleyball and the Monica
Seles-Gabriela Sabatini snoozerama instead. Sadly, the network
was running true to form.

Its skittishness about the unpleasant side of Olympic news had
become apparent when newspapers in the U.S. and abroad ran
stories about organizational chaos in Atlanta. Wretched bus
service, fouled-up computers, inferior housing for athletes,
even warm Coke--you name it, and the host city was accused of
it. Yet NBC scarcely breathed a discouraging word, endearing
itself to the local pooh-bahs who have as much to gain from the
Games as the network does.

The other obvious dent in NBC's reportorial armor has been its
"plausibly live" approach to event coverage. Although the phrase
sounds eerily Nixonian, the approach is really nothing but a way
to snooker unsuspecting viewers into thinking they are watching
something as it unfolds rather than on tape. How does NBC do
that? Simply by refusing to say what's live and what isn't. The
public obviously doesn't mind, or the network wouldn't be
setting records with ratings that are 21% higher than those for
the Barcelona Olympics. But if any of us suckers had turned to
ESPN or all-news radio last Tuesday, we would have learned that
U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug was a hero almost six hours before we
saw her help bring home the team gold on one leg.

What NBC wants is to deal with the news only on its terms. That
is questionable enough when the world's greatest athletes are at
play. Once the bomb exploded, however, the network dodged its
duty. The kindest thing one could say of its skimpy coverage was
that it smacked of American resilience and indomitability: No
lunatic was going to disrupt NBC's Games, by god. But this was a
time that called for far more journalistically.

Janet Evans, the outgoing queen of distance swimming, could be
heard telling an interviewer, "My first reaction after I found
my parents was, I just want to go home." Even Brokaw
acknowledged the cloud of fear hanging over the country by
saying, "We're going to have to change the way we live." And
still NBC refused to step up. It wanted a return to Olympic
normalcy. No bomb, no blood, just a simple world in which track
and field host Tom Hammond could compare Atlanta's somber mood
to the way Jackie Joyner-Kersee felt when injuries forced her
out of the heptathlon. There was just one thing that Hammond,
like NBC, forgot: Death and a bad hamstring don't equate.

John Schulian, a former newspaper sports columnist in Chicago
and Philadelphia, is a TV writer and producer in Hollywood.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG [Drawing of NBC "peacock" with head in sand]