English: Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 Tour de Gruene Individual Time Trial, 1 November 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The media is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate of government. That is how truly powerful it is. But sometimes the media meets its match in power, stature, intrigue, and hope. Let me tell you how the media failed us in the Lance Armstrong debacle. It's a cautionary tale that has happened before. Think WWII, Te'o, and a number of other stories. Sometimes the media WANTS to believe so badly that the story will have a good ending that it misses the obvious, skips fact checking and YES... even wantonly disregards the real story. Lance Armstrong's fall from grace was one of those epic stories.
First of all, Lance's story is great, if you believe all the hype. Cyclist recovers from near-fatal disease to win an epic 7 straight Tour De France titles. Then he starts a famous cancer foundation that raises of millions of dollars to help cancer patients. And all the while, Lance is fighting off constant attacks on his sterling reputation. Rare was the negative mainstream media article. The sports media fell over themselves (sometimes literally) to get time with him. The dark side and perhaps most insidious side of Armstong's personality was to demand 100% loyalty to the myth and legend of Lance. Any journalist who came around asking funny questions was immediately banned from ever talking to him again.
So the media - whose job depends on access to Lance - had a decision to make. Either cover him in a positive light, or lose the right to write about him in an authoritative manner. It was like choosing between a rock and a hard place.
Journalism works under the supposition of a thing called the Master Narrative. The narrative is built over time and is a premise somewhat based on what has happened in the past. Once the narrative is built and is repeated time after time, it's hard for anyone, even members of the media, to dislodge it from their subconscious thinking. The Lance Master Narrative was well-known and famous. Since no one with any more credibility than Lance was accusing him of wrongdoing for so long, Lance Armstrong had years to refute any statements that might arise against him. He even got the chance to paint the opposition with the brush of his choosing. In this case the brush was named "You have no proof."
It was only when mainstream journalists who had no connection with Armstrong (or his merry band of thug protectors) - started writing about his coverup that people began to doubt Armstrong's story. It took a huge number of people speaking up against him to even nudge public opinion against him. Lance Armstrong's master narrative was so powerful that even the U.S. Justice Department barely put a dent in it.
Citizen journalism and the sworn testimony of his former teammates were the only things that finally did Lance in. The great and all powerful Oz had been exposed, once and for all.
Lance's master narrative included the belief that he was a super-being. A survivor. A determined athlete. A humanitarian. A good person. Anything that did not fit with that narrative was ignored by the media for a very long time. Even when it was reported on by the mainstream media, for the longest time the reporters went to great lengths to report Lance's sometimes implausible side of the story.
It was only when a critical amount of evidence and confessions piled up into an irrefutable and well-documented tattle, that the media stopped using the Lance Armstong master narrative. It came unceremoniosly crashing to the ground.
The media does indeed play an important role in our society. When the media builds a master narrative built on "persona" of one charismatic individual, that is where is becomes dangerous. The media allowed itself to become mesmerized with Lance Armstrong. That is why his fall was no long and hard. There was absolutely nothing big or strong enough to break his fall.
Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.
This post originally appeared on the blog IowaBiz.com on January 21, 2013.