December 8, 2023

Media Decoder Blog: Will Lance Armstrong End Up in the Naughty Corner on Oprah?

Lance Armstrong has been a remarkable gift to the media in many ways. An unlikely American victor in the Eurocentric sport of pro cycling, he won the Tour de France seven times after being stricken by cancer, which had threatened to end his racing career entirely. He started a cancer foundation, Livestrong, whose name appeared on bracelets worn by many Americans. And then he ran into deep trouble over accusations that he had doped his way to the top of the sport.

He will complete the media arc Monday night when he sits down with Oprah Winfrey, presumably to acknowledge that his critics were right all along. His expected confession will be one of the most ungainly U-turns in the history of sport. With a decade of vehement denials behind him, Mr. Armstrong has a very long distance to travel, and this time there will be no shortcuts. The interview will be shown on the OWN network Thursday night.

It will make for riveting television, something he noted in a telephone interview with my colleague Juliet Macur on Saturday.

“I think Oprah understands the pressure of this interview,” he said. “She’s clever. She’s seen people questioning whether she will go deep. I’ve assured her that I want her to go deep with her questions, and I’m going to answer those questions openly, honestly and with full transparency. And, quite frankly, I’m looking forward to it.”

Remember that Ms. Winfrey served as both a conduit and a scold when James Frey decided to come clean about the literary fraud behind “A Million Little Pieces.” But it’s worth noting that the fraud that Mr. Armstrong is accused of perpetrating is a far more complex one, full of scientific nuance and deeper implications.

Ms. Winfrey will have to work hard to get beyond the generic reflex of public confession – he did wrong, he’s sorry and now everything is new again – and into the specifics of his behavior. A trip to Ms. Winfrey’s naughty corner may help put his athletic transgressions in context, but the tougher issue may be his behavior since then.

Among other issues, an article Monday in The New York Times raised questions about the relationship between his charitable and business interests. Mr. Armstrong’s task is also complicated by the fact that he has relentless and vigorously denied the allegations for a decade, and more darkly, bullied and sometimes ruined those who questioned his version of events. Any admissions he makes will provide little comfort to the legitimate athletes he forced from the sport, the teammates and their spouses whom he ruined, and the journalists who lost their jobs or access because they told the truth.

The Sunday Times, which made a payment to Mr. Armstrong after he sued the newspaper for libel in 2004, is now suing Mr. Armstrong to recover $1.5 million. On Sunday, the newspaper took out an advertisement in The Chicago Tribune, Ms. Winfrey’s hometown newspaper, that was written by David Walsh, one of the many journalists he attacked.

Among the questions in the advertisement were “Did you sue The Sunday Times to shut us up?” and “Why have you chosen Oprah Winfrey for your first interview as a banned athlete?”

No one can predict what Mr. Armstrong will say, or for that matter, what questions Ms. Winfrey will ask, although it is a safe bet he will be well coached. Mr. Armstrong has hired Mark Fabiani, the former White House special counsel who advised Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair.

It could also turn out that journalists who believed in him for years could turn on him, as Buzz Bissinger did in a brutal post Monday on the Daily Beast. Mr. Bissinger wrote about a cover story he did for Newsweek in which he defended Mr. Armstrong. He now says, “Don’t believe a word he says, because not a word he says can be believed.”

My cover story about Lance Armstrong, my affirmation of faith, was the worst piece of opinion I have ever written. I did a disservice to myself. More important I did a disservice to readers. I did believe what I wrote at the time. I do believe in staking out strong positions. We all do as columnists today, because of the world we live in, craving to differentiate ourselves from the thousands who populate the Internet every hour.

Other journalists who never had much faith in Mr. Armstrong are now worried that he will escape true consequence. Andy Shen runs the racing blog NYVelocity and was part of a small cadre of journalists who relentlessly pursued the real story behind Mr. Armstrong’s miraculous career.

“My biggest worry is that this gambit is going to work,” Mr. Shen said. “He’ll manage to convince an audience unfamiliar with the sport that all he did was cheat a bunch of cheaters and the best man still won. That’s not the case.”

Confession and forgiveness are fundamental parts of the American media narrative. It is familiar to all of us and, in a way, comforting. But when Mr. Armstrong arrives at some version of the truth in his interview with Ms. Winfrey, one question will linger. Is he sorry for what he did or sorry he got caught?

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The Media Equation: Chasing Lance Armstrong’s Misdeeds From the Sidelines

Every once in a while, the outliers are right. This is a story of how a group of people at the low end of bicycle racing used the Web and social media to take back custody of their sport from powerful dopers and liars and their enablers in the media.

In the last 15 years, there has not been a better sports story than Lance Armstrong: a pro cyclist is stricken by cancer, triumphs over the disease and goes on to conquer his sport, winning the Tour de France seven times in a row. Armstrong then used the luster of his victories to turn LiveStrong, a foundation he started for cancer victims, into a household name worn on the wrists of many. It was a story the press, and the reading public, could not get enough of.

The problem with mythical ascents is that they are often followed by spectacular falls, precisely because they are myths.

On Oct. 10, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released a report that laid out in breathtaking detail how Lance Armstrong had organized a systematic doping program for his team. Mr. Armstrong waived his right to contest the findings, and last Monday, the International Cycling Union stripped him of the Tour de France titles he won from 1999 to 2005.

For those of us who paid only casual attention, his abasement — he has been dropped by Nike and other sponsors and has stepped down as chairman of LiveStrong — came as a deep shock. Sure, there was a steady hum of suspicion along the way, but Armstrong had never failed a drug test, and his steadfast denials were always dutifully reported.

Besides, there was a heroic narrative to be nurtured, and mainstream reporters pretty much stuck to the script — either because they were invested in the legend or were worried about maintaining access to one of the most important figures in sports. There were early and vocal dissenters, including Paul Kimmage, an Irish journalist and veteran of cycling coverage, David Walsh, and Juliet Macur of The New York Times. But for the most part, the journalists who seemed to know the most about professional cycling told us the least. To doubt Armstrong was to doubt the American dream, to effectively be “for cancer,” as his legion of defenders would claim.

But amid the conspiracy of silence, often enforced by Armstrong or his lawyers, according to the report, a small group of dedicated cycling enthusiasts took to blogs and Twitter. His otherworldly accomplishments, they wrote, were a monument not to the power of human spirit, but to the remarkable effectiveness of EPO, an oxygen-enhancing hormone. On Twitter, critics behind handles like @TheRaceRadio, @UCI_Overlord and @FestinaGirl jabbed at Armstrong’s denials and the sport’s leadership.

More important, NYVelocity, a tiny hobby blog that mostly covered the New York bike racing scene, helped pull back the blankets on the Armstrong legend. The blog published a satirical comic, “As the Toto Turns,” to savage effect, and in a series of postings it made the case that pro cycling was corrupt and that Mr. Armstrong’s denials masked a wilderness of lies.

Andy Shen founded the site in 2004 with two friends, Alex Ostroy and Dan Schmalz. Mr. Shen is a commercial photographer and amateur racer, not a journalist. But in 2009, after watching in growing disgust as evidence mounted along with the denials, he published a groundbreaking 13,000-word interview with Dr. Michael Ashenden revisiting the results of drug tests from Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France victory.

The interview with Dr. Ashenden, an Australian exercise physiologist who had helped develop EPO tests for pro cycling, was full of arcane chemistry, but his findings were clear and damning: EPO was present in the samples and the pattern demonstrated systematic doping.

The link to the interview became a kind of beacon on the Web, posted over and over on racing forums in an effort to inject science into a very emotional debate.

“Bike racing is a niche sport, and then suddenly someone like Armstrong comes along and makes it 10 times bigger and no one wanted to be the one who went after him,” Mr. Shen said over lunch last week. “Everyone in the industry depended on him or was afraid of him.”

Some mainstream journalists have continued to stand by Armstrong, including Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, who wrote a book with him, but many others have issued mea culpas for buying the lie. John Leicester, the international sports columnist for The Associated Press, called himself “a dope” and said he wished he had “told the story better.”

Mr. Shen said he felt bad for reporters who had to choose between gaining access to Armstrong or risk being frozen out. He had no access to lose, no ax to grind.


Twitter: @carr2n

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 28, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Wired magazine as a publication for which Bill Gifford had written about Lance Armstrong.

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Ruling Offers Hope to Eating Disorder Sufferers

Through claims and court cases, those with severe cases of anorexia or bulimia are fighting insurers to pay for stays in residential treatment centers, arguing that the centers offer around-the-clock monitoring so that patients do not forgo eating or purge their meals.

But in the last few years, some insurance companies have re-emphasized that they do not cover residential treatment for eating disorders or other mental or emotional conditions. The insurers consider residential treatments not only costly — sometimes reaching more than $1,000 a day — but unproven and more akin to education than to medicine.  Even some doctors who treat eating disorders concede there are few studies proving that residential care is effective, although they believe it has value.

“We’ve seen an increase in denials,” said Kathleen MacDonald, education and prevention coordinator for the Gail R. Schoenbach FREED Foundation, an advocacy group for those with eating disorders. “Now, I go to bed every night and I can’t answer all the e-mails I get. It’s heartbreaking.”

Both sides are closely watching the consequences of a major decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in August that insurers in California must pay for residential treatment for eating disorders and other serious mental illnesses under the state’s mental health parity law.

In the last decade or so, many states enacted similar laws, and, in 2008, so did the federal government. The laws generally require that coverage for mental and behavioral disorders be equivalent to that for physical ailments like diabetes or a broken bone.

But equivalence, or parity, can be tricky to define, and the appeals court ruling is one of the first by a high federal court to interpret the concept.

Blue Shield of California, the defendant in the lawsuit, is already seeking to have the case reheard, arguing that the decision could force insurers to pay for unlimited amounts of treatment, raising insurance costs.

While the ruling applies only to California’s law, some experts think it will influence courts, state agencies and insurers elsewhere.

“You’ll see it bleed over,” said Scott Petersen, a lawyer in Salt Lake City who often represents insurance companies in parity cases.

In New Jersey, Aetna, Horizon and AmeriHealth have agreed to end limits on the number of days of residential treatment they will cover for eating disorders, according to Bruce Nagel, a lawyer who sued the insurers under the state’s parity law.

The Parity Implementation Coalition, a group monitoring the federal parity law, has filed about 150 complaints about possible violations, according to Dr. Henry Harbin, a psychiatrist and adviser to the group. Some cases involve denial for residential treatment for substance abuse or mental illnesses by plans offered by companies like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola Bottling.

An estimated 11 million Americans, mostly young women, suffer from eating disorders, the most serious being anorexia nervosa, in which people starve themselves, and bulimia nervosa, in which they engage in binge eating followed by purging. These disorders, particularly anorexia, have the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

The advocates for those with eating disorders, who often cooperate or get financing from residential treatment centers, estimate there are about 75 such facilities for those specific illnesses, and many others for substance abuse and for emotionally or psychologically disturbed children.

Sam Menaged, founder and president of the Renfrew Center, which is based in Philadelphia and is one of the oldest and largest residential treatment centers for eating disorders, said only 60 percent of insurers covered the therapy and that hundreds of people were turned away from Renfrew each year.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield plan for federal employees added language to policies at the beginning of this year specifying that residential treatment for any condition would not be covered. Two months later, citing that change in policy, the Remuda Ranch closed its eastern center for eating disorders, which was in Milford, Va.

Executives at the federal plan said that residential treatment had never been covered and that the new language merely made that more explicit.

Yet Samantha Ascanio, 23, of Gaithersburg, Md., said the plan had covered her four previous stays at a residential center but denied payment this year. She instead enrolled in outpatient programs that lasted more than six months.

Most plans offered to California state employees also added language this year clarifying that residential treatment was not covered.

Advocates and some doctors who treat eating disorders say that hospitalization, which insurers typically cover, might stabilize a patient and restore weight but does not generally treat the underlying psychological issues. Outpatient treatment, which might also be covered, does provide counseling but not round the clock. Residential treatment, they say, occupies a vital niche between those two.

“I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t gone there,” said Jeanene Harlick, who was the plaintiff in the recent California case.

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Media Decoder: Amid Rumors She’s Leaving CBS, Couric Heads to Iraq

Postscript Appended

As reports continue to swirl about an impending departure from her anchor position at CBS News, Katie Couric is to embark Tuesday morning on a long-planned trip to Iraq, where she will report on the military and political situation eight years after Baghdad fell to invading American forces.

The trip, which CBS is expected to announce Tuesday, comes even as CBS and representatives of Ms. Couric repeat their recent denials of an imminent resolution of her current status at the network. Her contract with CBS ends June 4.

CBS would not confirm Ms. Couric’s plans for this week. But speculation about her future continues to center on an end to her role as the anchor of “The CBS Evening News” and a new career as host of a syndicated daytime talk show.

Several executives who have been involved in the negotiations about Ms. Couric’s future said Monday that no deal was in place yet for Ms. Couric’s exit, nor even a determination of her next television destination. Both CBS and NBC – among others — have offers out to Ms. Couric to syndicate a talk show with her as the star.

Those offers could include a continuing role in news away from the anchor chair. Two CBS news executives said that taking this kind of news-oriented trip to Iraq would be exactly the sort of thing Ms. Couric would be able to do under the terms of a new relationship with a network news division. “This would be an example of the new scenarios that would be possible for her,” said one executive, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations with Ms. Couric were continuing.

The syndication deal is expected to include some association with a network news division, so Ms. Couric would be able to continue to have a presence on news coverage. According to those involved in the talks, that could take the form of prime-time specials, perhaps fill-in stints on a morning news show, or even reporting assignments in the field.

Ms. Couric herself confirmed one aspect of the speculation about her future show: that her former boss at the “Today” show – and the former chief executive of NBC, Jeff Zucker — would be involved the production of the show.

In an interview with The New York Times magazine to run next Sunday, Ms. Couric said of the rumors that Mr. Zucker would play a role in her future show, “We talk a lot and, yes, we’ve been discussing the possibilities. That’s true.”

Postscript: April 4, 2011

An earlier version incorrectly stated that Ms. Couric would depart for Iraq on Monday night instead of on Tuesday morning.

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