More at stake than gold medals for NBCUniversal at the Beijing Olympics: Truth in broadcasting
So here we go.
As it now sits, the United States will partake in the Beijing Olympics next February.
When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awards its games to a totalitarian regime, the U.S. television rightsholder faces a difficult decision. How does it report on the transgressions of the host countries. Usually, the networks cover up the warts by going along with the IOC‘s ridiculous stance that politics has no place in sports and that “We’re just covering a sporting event.”
Next February, NBCUniversal will again be faced with what is perhaps the most ethical problem a U.S. network has ever had: Should NBC, at some point of its coverage from Beijing, report on the repressive and expansionist activity of the Chinese government or ignore them and just concentrate on sports?
Olympic games were televised previously from the totalitarian countries of China, Russia and Yugoslavia. But this time it’s different. In addition to the human rights crackdown on its citizens, China is in an expansive mode and the U.S. is fighting back, most recently with an agreement to help Australia build nuclear submarines.
For NBC Universal, the decisions are clear-cut:
1) Include the warts of the Chinese government in its coverage;
2) Camouflage the warts and downplay the actions of the Chinese government
3) Alienate the Chinese government and subject itself to punishment as was the case when the NBA’s Daryl Morey tweeted freedom for Hong Kong, or
4) Behave as it has in the past and largely ignore the fact that the games are being played in a totalitarian country.
My educated guess is that the NBC will choose numbers #2 or #4, based on its performance during the Tokyo Olympics, when the network failed to defend itself against Chinese charges that NBCUniversal’s use of an “incomplete map” of China during the opening ceremony had a “very bad influence and harmed the dignity and emotions of the Chinese people.”
During the Tokyo Games this past summer, NBC provided minimal coverage, if that, of other controversies, some of which were political. And that was during its telecast from a democratic country, Japan! Beijing also held the rights to the 2008 Summer Olympics, strongly suggesting that the Games would improve the human rights situation in the country. It has yet to happen.
My guess is made more certain because NBCUniversal has ties with China that transcend television. The company is a partner in the recently opened new Beijing Universal Studios theme park which Bloomberg reported on September 20th sold out its opening day tickets in 30 minutes. The fun and games park is a joint venture between the state-owned Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment Company and Comcast NBCUniversal.
Many U.S. senators and members of congress criticized the IOC’s choice of Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics because of China’s human rights and censorship tactics. The top U.S. government official to speak out publicly thus far has been U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has called for a U.S. diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. She criticized China for human rights abuses, and said global leaders who attend would lose their moral authority.
“Let’s not honor the Chinese government by having heads of state go to China,” she added. “For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing – while you’re sitting there in your seat – really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world?”
The speaker also criticized sponsors of the games who “look the other way on China’s abuses out of concern for their bottom line. If we don’t speak out against human rights violations in China for commercial reasons, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere,” Pelosi said.
But Beijing sponsors haven’t been swayed by the congresswoman’s remarks. According to a Reuters article on September 9th, Dan Lovinger, Executive Vice President of Advertising Sales at NBC Sports Group, said on a call with reporters that advertising for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is at “near sell-out levels.”
Some political leaders have asked NBCUniversal to not televise the Beijing games. The chance of that happening is as unlikely as me being 21 years old again.
On July 26, Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told the Associated Press: “As long as Xi remains in power, Beijing will insist on media companies that want to operate in China to adhere to the narrative Beijing projects, particularly on ‘sensitive’ issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang,” Tsang said. “Reporting for the Winter Olympics in China is likely to be subjected to such pressure. The question is how Western media will respond.” NBC has been smart not to comment, he continued.
“If NBC is left on its own, Beijing will fall on it like a ton of bricks,” he said. “But if it can get all major media to work together, Beijing may not push it so hard after all.”
In 2014, NBC Universal paid $7.75 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights to the Olympic Games from 2022 to 2032. NBC didn’t pony up that money just to provide entertainment for its viewing audience. It was a business decision, just as are the decisions of “proud sponsors” of the Olympics, with the profit factor being the deciding factor. And when money is concerned, morality is often the victim.
But that doesn’t mean that NBCUniversal can’t behave as a news organization and report on the actions of the Chinese government as well as covering the events. Both are entwined and should be reported as such, now and during the games which are scheduled to begin on February 4th.
There’s little doubt that the organizers of the 2022 Beijing Game organizers will deliver a breath-taking television show that the Chinese government will use as a propaganda tool. But that doesn’t excuse NBCUniversal and the U.S game sponsors from being complicit in helping camouflage the transgressions of the Chinese government by saying, “We just follow the sport.”
If NBCUniversal does not report on the wrongdoings of the Chinese government, it will be appropriate to label the network a propaganda arm of the IOC and the Chinese government, along with the “proud sponsors.”