NEW YORK TIMES columnist Maureen Dowd clearly holds the Bush administration responsible for most of the world’s ills, except perhaps psoriasis and ingrown toenails. Still, she became slightly unhinged with her Aug. 19 broadside, suggesting the shoddy performance of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team owed something to the war in Iraq.

Quoting one of her sports colleagues, Dowd seized on the theory that U.S. players need to swagger, taunt opponents and “pound their chests to get their hearts racing.” Yet because athletes were asked to be on their best behavior to blunt images of ugly Americanism, their play has suffered.

Actually, there’s a far more plausible if less politically salacious culprit — namely, television.

Now hear me out. One of the Olympic team’s biggest problems is that its young stars lack fundamental skills — little things, like shooting and passing — necessary to overcome the zone defenses utilized in international play.

Well, one reason players don’t develop those abilities is because they no longer must to land on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” which heaps adulation on the flashy dunk, crunching hit and tape-measure home run, with little appreciation of sports’ finer points.

Despite diminishing quality, TV networks have also fattened sports owners’ coffers with lucrative rights fees, providing the leagues little incentive to improve their products. Similarly, media coverage glorifies high school kids leaping directly into the pro ranks, undermining the ideal of learning the game while gaining a springboard to higher education.

THAT’S JUST A WARM-UP, though, to the Olympic impact of TV’s fear factor, and I don’t mean bug eating or hanging from suspension wires. More than any other medium, television excels at transforming rational concerns into irrational worries.

How does that fit in? Let’s not forget that this assemblage of hoopsters is hardly a “dream team,” since many of the NBA’s best passed on summering in Greece, scared off by the amorphous threat of terrorism.

Print outlets obviously stoke apprehension as well, but nothing stresses for success quite like television. Indeed, given the general tone of hysteria, it’s a wonder anybody musters the courage to leave the house.

Consider local news accounts of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus, whose death toll in California must be up to, what, 7,000? In reality, it’s seven, in a state with 36 million people. With apologies to all that “team coverage,” I like my chances of not becoming a casualty.

Ditto for all the pregnant women casting suspicious glances at their husbands, with the Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking cases garnering more attention from cable news than Osama bin Laden. Not to be outdone, A&E (which increasingly stands for “Adultery & Entombment”) chimed in with the special “Fatal Fathers,” reinforcing that all dads might be killers in waiting — something longtime viewers of the Lifetime network already knew.

In part, TV news’ fear mongering is self-serving — seeking any roundabout “It could happen to you” tie-in to justify the time squandered on titillating stories possessing no wider significance. The Peterson trial has been especially fertile in this regard, as news outfits explore broader implications of infidelity and spousal murder, loath to admit that they’ve simply been drawn into a tawdry real-life soap opera.

Admittedly, the public makes this all possible as sports spectators and news viewers, but there’s not much fun in browbeating them. Besides, being weaned on television has programmed us all to subconsciously translate events into familiar, easily digestible formats — where each Olympic medal represents a heartwarming, piano-scored triumph over adversity, not just who swims the fastest or sticks their landing.

SO THOUGH PRESIDENT BUSH has much to address at next week’s Republican National Convention, even Michael Moore would be hard-pressed to accuse him of setting back America’s Olympic effort because the athletes can’t be as boorish as they wanna be.

Dowd, meanwhile, rebounded in her latest Bush whacking, criticizing presidential allies and surrogates for re-fighting the Vietnam War at the expense of debating the one in which we’re currently embroiled — though again, abetted by the media’s complicit thirst for controversy. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” of the Swift boat veterans’ campaign against John Kerry, “We’re completely allowing this whole issue to dominate the news.”

For those keeping score, chalk it up as another error, right next to Dowd’s metaphorical air ball. With 10 weeks until the election, it’s an instructive reminder that in news and punditry, as in sports, that’s now often just the way the ball bounces.

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