Touchy-feely Oprah unlikely to ask Lance those tough questions


TIPPING POINT:Many pertinent questions need to be pitched at Lance Armstrong when his eagerly awaited interview with Oprah Winfrey airs on Thursday.

But only one is likely to be definitively answered: will Lance blubber?

He doesn’t seem like a weeper, but he might be contractually obliged to squeeze the old ducts just a little. After all it’s that kind of show. In journalese, they’re known as many things, the most printable of which is puff pieces. It’s where a person agrees to be interviewed in return for an easy ride.

Thus you get Sunday newspaper pieces about the elegant, resilient woman in Dior who wept tears of bitter regret as she plunged the kitchen knife into her husband’s eye. Or the enigmatically masculine businessman, creator of hundreds of jobs, and charity mainstay, who parked outside the girls’ school every day out of total coincidence.

The pay-off for the media outlet that engages in such editorial spooning is exclusivity. There can’t be a hack in the game that hasn’t at some stage had to hold their nose and churn out shinola on questionable characters that end up flexibly described as “individual” or “complicated” instead of what they often really are: Grade A Turds.

And that happens because in this lark, just as in sport, first wins and seconds come nowhere. Hacks know this. So do the Turds. One hand ends up moisturising the other. Mind you, the competition gets to subsequently lash out at the fatuousness of said puff pieces, while using the fresh quotes for their own agenda. So everyone’s happy really: except perhaps the reader/listener/viewer confronted with a morass of manipulated media molasses.

Smoking gun

So that’s the game being played ahead of this week’s Lance Oprah show. She gets exclusivity and he gets to answer questions about his feelings. Already there are reports that Armstrong will admit to doping but is unwilling to pursue the matter in detail. Since doping is what it’s all about, that’s a bit like Frost/Nixon ignoring Watergate.

As for any insight into how the “most sophisticated doping conspiracy” the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) has seen might have been facilitated by cycling officialdom, don’t hold your breath.

No, the only smoking gun will be the metaphorical one in your mouth after grimly watching to the end and realising Oprah ain’t no Paxman. Which is why she gets the guest.

Lance would be into the hills quicker than a Colombian mountain goat if Paxo was to conduct a live interview. That’s not what Thursday is about. If Paxo’s about sneers, Oprah is about tears, lots of them. Guess who gets watched more? That’s modern TV’s soft-core hard currency. These intensely choreographed shows always end up being more about the interviewer than the interviewee.

No way is Armstrong going to trip up. This is a guy who for more than a decade didn’t put a foot wrong when it came to maintaining a facade of integrity. To go that long lying at press conferences, on telly, even in court, testifies to someone entirely comfortable in front of a microphone. Does anyone really think Oprah is going to blindside him? Armstrong will perform well. He is an impressive television performer. Always has been. It might seem a little “aw shucks” for European tastes, but the Yanks eat that stuff up. He is a TV natural. But to appear so comfortable in such a fundamentally unnatural setting as a studio is a work of artifice anyway, requiring either a monumental self-regard or complete absence of shame.

Armstrong ain’t short in either department. He is going to be fine.

Cancer battle

And Oprah will be more than fine. She does exactly what it says on the tin – she emotes. She empathises. She feels.

When Armstrong flexes that strong yet vulnerable jaw, admits he isn’t perfect, has made mistakes and makes a seemingly random – but in fact carefully planned – allusion to his cancer battle, Oprah will well-up, perhaps extend a hand and assure old Lance she knows this is difficult.

There might even be an “aww” in the studio. And if there isn’t, a production assistant will provide one.

Sentiment trumps fact every time when it comes to ratings; and this feelings-fest will be solid gold. So everyone wins, right? Well, no, everyone doesn’t win. This choreographed pirouette will razzle and dazzle but shed little or no light on central questions, the answers to which the public are entitled, about a man who was semi-deified in his prime and a cycling authority that showed little or no inclination to examine the burnish on his halo.

Until Usada became involved it was only unfashionable old-school journalism that provided some desperately needed scepticism to the Lance Armstrong show; the very kind he is now anxious to avoid by appearing on a new-media phenomenon like Oprah.

Armstrong will get his puff. And no doubt there will be online reaction to his performance that will plumb the depths of vicious and obscene trolldom. But he can live with that, just as he can happily live with Oprah empathising.

It’s the middle ground, factual stuff that’s infuriating Armstrong, and which will remain central to the story.

No amount of blubbing will change that.

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