Media
2:40 pm
Mon January 13, 2014

How Will NBC Cover Gay Issues During Sochi Olympics?

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 9:47 am

The Winter Olympics next month, held in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, should provide mesmerizing athletic spectacle on ice and snow. But each Olympics also affords a brief global platform for dissidents in host countries to get the attention of the world — primarily through the media. And the exclusive American broadcaster, NBC, is coming under pressure to do more on behalf of gay rights and journalists there.

A 'Last Chance' To Shape Russian Attitudes

Five channels and various digital streams will provide viewers 1,500 hours of coverage of Olympic events in Sochi. Jim Bell, the NBC Sports executive overseeing this 2 1/2-week extravaganza, would broadcast images of athletes unfurling rainbow flags in protest, if that should happen.

But he says he has a simple philosophy for what he'll do in the absence of newsworthy events: "Show the Olympics. Show the events, show the competition, show the athletes," Bell says. "This is the athletes' moment. That's really what it's about."

Ahead of the Sochi competition, Bell says, the network will sketch out for viewers the context in which the games take place in Russia. "I think our approach is to do a thorough explanation," he says. "To talk about President [Vladimir] Putin really being a driving force behind the games, gay rights, whatever else."

Let's look at that second element: gay rights. Last June, Putin's government banned "gay propaganda." The change affects reporters: Even neutral news coverage of issues involving gays and lesbians appears to violate that law.

Konstantin Yablotskiy, co-chairman of the Russia LGBT Sports Federation, says the effects have been severe. In the past Yablotskiy participated in the Gay Games as a figure skater. Now, he says, national networks devote documentaries to denouncing homosexuals. He looks to the Olympics for hope.

"Probably it's our last chance to try to change this situation, to change attitudes of Russian society, to show people that we are not marginal sodomites," Yablotskiy says. "We are normal people who have their normal lives, who can do sports and win medals."

How Much Responsibility Does NBC Bear?

"We're not there to poke a sharp stick in anybody's eye, but we're not going to shy away from reporting anything either," says Bell, the NBC Sports executive. "... My colleagues in NBC News [will] ask appropriate questions. They'll do what they have to do to report stories as they develop. I don't think we're worried about that at all."

Indeed, NBC News Senior Vice President Alexandra Wallace noted that the network has paid attention to gay rights in Russia of late. She points to coverage in Sochi itself, as well as stories about President Obama's appointment of gay athletes to represent the U.S. in the opening ceremonies.

"Billie Jean King is on the Today show Thursday. We had Brian Boitano on last week," she said in a recent interview. "I would hold up our reporting on LGBT issues in Russia — maybe not with Foreign Affairs journal, but I think we've done a good job of it, actually."

The scenario resembles the 2008 Beijing Olympics: A repressive regime seeking legitimacy is serving as host. Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives with Human Rights Watch, says that the scenario bestows both an obligation and a lot of sway to the IOC — and its media partner. Worden doesn't distinguish much between the two: An NBC executive sits on the IOC, and the network's corporate parent paid $775 million for the right to broadcast the games.

Worden says they should have campaigned against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law. Instead, she says, the IOC, NBC and other Olympic sponsors "really dropped the ball last June." After all, the law is aimed at reporters as well as gays and lesbian activists.

"It's really a double bind," Worden says. "I think the only principled way forward for a company like NBC is to report in a robust way on the Olympics and on human rights abuses that have defined these Olympics."

'We're Not Activists: We're Observers'

The International Olympic Committee says it has firm assurances from Putin that no one attending the games will face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — though a public protest by athletes would be provocative.

Violence met past demonstrations at which Russian gays and lesbians kissed, while no arrests ensued from other violent attacks that were captured in videos and uploaded to Russian social media platforms. Those videos were intended to celebrate the attacks.

NBC has accelerated its pace of coverage of the nonathletic side of the games in recent weeks, and it hired The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, who has reported extensively from Russia, as an analyst. Still, the coverage often comes off more as reactive than enterprising.

Wallace says NBC News' journalists have a single mission.

"Our job is reporting what's going on in the world. We're not activists: We're observers and analysts," Wallace says.

The Committee to Protect Journalists will soon release a report concluding that Russian authorities have intimidated the national media and bought off smaller outlets. It says freedom of the press requires international news outlets to step up and create running room for local media outlets — on issues such as the rights of gays in Russia.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Winter Olympics to be held in Russia next month promise a mesmerizing athletic spectacle on ice and snow. But each Olympics also affords a brief global platform for dissidents and host countries to grab the world's attention. The primary root, through the media. And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, America's exclusive broadcaster of the games, NBC, is coming under pressure from gay rights activists.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Jim Bell is the NBC Sports executive overseeing the 2 1/2-week extravaganza, with more than 1,500 hours of coverage over five NBC channels and online of Olympics events from the Black Sea resort of Sochi. If an athlete unfurls a rainbow flag, he'll broadcast it. Otherwise, Bell says...

JIM BELL: Show the Olympics. Show the events, show the competition, show the athletes. This is the athletes' moment. I mean, you know, that's really what it's about.

FOLKENFLIK: Bell says the network will sketch out for viewers the context in which the games take place.

BELL: Our approach is to do a thorough explanation, to talk about President Putin and his really being a driving force behind these games, talk about some of the issues from security to gay rights, to whatever else.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's look at that second element: gay rights. Last June, Vladimir Putin's government banned so-called gay propaganda. That affects reporters and gays. Even neutral news coverage of issues involving gays and lesbians appears to violate that law.

Konstantin Yablotskiy is co-chairman of the Russia LGBT Sports Federation.

KONSTANTIN YABLOTSKIY: Probably it's our last chance to try to change this situation, to change attitudes of Russian society, to show people that we are not marginal sodomites.

FOLKENFLIK: In the past, Yablotskiy participated in the gay games as a figure skater. Now, he says, national networks devote documentaries to denouncing homosexuals. He looks to the Olympics for hope.

YABLOTSKIY: We are normal people who have their normal lives, who can do sports and win medals.

FOLKENFLIK: But how much responsibility for that should NBC bear? Again, Jim Bell.

BELL: We're not there to poke a sharp stick in anybody's eye, but we're not going to shy away from reporting anything either. My colleagues in NBC News will do what they have to do to report stories as they develop. I don't think we're worried about that at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, over at NBC's news division, Senior Vice President Alexandra Wallace recently noted the network has paid attention to gay rights in Sochi itself and in stories about President Obama's appointment of gay athletes to the official U.S. Olympic delegation.

ALEXANDRA WALLACE: Billie Jean King is on the "Today" show on Thursday. We had Brian Boitano on last week. I would hold up our reporting on LGBT issues in Russia, maybe not with Foreign Affairs journal, but I think we've done a good job of it, actually.

FOLKENFLIK: The scenario resembles the 2008 Beijing Olympics: A regime seeking legitimacy is serving as host. Minky Worden says that gives the International Olympic Committee and its media partner both an obligation and a lot of sway. Worden is a senior official at the activist group Human Rights Watch.

MINKY WORDEN: The IOC and Olympic sponsors, including NBC, really dropped the ball last June.

FOLKENFLIK: Worden doesn't distinguish a lot between the two. An NBC official sits on the IOC executive committee, and the network's corporate parent paid $775 million for the rights to broadcast these winter games. She says they should have campaigned against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law.

WORDEN: It's really a double bind. I think the only principled way forward for a company like NBC is to report in a robust way on the Olympics and on human rights abuses that have defined these Olympics.

FOLKENFLIK: The IOC says it has firm assurances from Putin that no one attending the games will face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, though a public protest by athletes would be provocative. Violence met protests at which Russian gays and lesbians kissed.

Videos capturing and celebrating other violent attacks on gays have been uploaded to Russian social media platforms. Human rights advocates say no arrests have ensued. So far, while the network has accelerated its pace of coverage of the nonathletic side of the games in recent weeks, the stories have been more reactive than enterprising.

NBC News executive Alexandra Wallace says her journalists have a single mission.

WALLACE: Our job is to report on what's going on in the world. We're not activists. We're observers and analysts.

FOLKENFLIK: Later this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists will release a report concluding that Russian authorities have intimidated the national media and bought off smaller outlets. It says freedom of the press requires that international news agencies step up and create running room for local news organizations by covering issues such as the rights of gays in Russia.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.