It seemed like overkill when NBC sent “Today” co-host Matt Lauer to Sochi to begin co-anchoring the weekday morning show there four days before the Olympics began. Not only did that edge out real news, but the advance airtime was filled with snarky reports that appeared designed to portray the Russian hosts as inept. When a network plunks down that much for an exclusive right to broadcast, it’s going to milk it for all it can, and NBC is good at that. What it hasn’t been so good at is covering these Olympics objectively. The condescension hasn’t let up, and the network isn’t alone.
It began in small, almost imperceptible ways, with a focus on all the things that weren’t ready. It hardly seemed newsworthy that someone who had reservations in Sochi had to stay miles away before Opening Day. We were treated to shots of unfinished construction work, stories of cold showers and discolored hotel water. Some of that comes with the territory; most of the world lacks the amenities we have, and this was newly constructed.
Among The Washington Post’s “15 signs that Russia is not ready for the Olympics” one was that construction errors had led to the collapse of someone’s home. Very unfortunate, but how relevant? Then, “Environmental experts predict the breakneck construction in Sochi could cause significant environmental damage, but because of Russia’s opaqueness on the issue, they really have no idea how big the problem is.” So it’s speculative. NBC informed us of problems with the halfpipe trail for snowboarders, a legitimate issue. But was it necessary to state, without attribution, that critics had used adjectives like “lame” and “garbage”?
It’s not that things are all rosy in Russia, or that there aren’t valid criticisms to be made. Syria, Edward Snowden and human rights have all complicated relations between the United States and Russia recently. But the Obama administration opted not to boycott the Olympics, as some dissenting Russians – including two members of the women’s rock band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for two years for “hooliganism” – had urged. The president did make a statement in defense of gay rights by not attending opening ceremonies and putting gay members on the U.S. delegation.
But once we decided to participate, we should be as gracious as the event demands. We can’t have it both ways – participate but condescendingly. Was it necessary, for example, for Obama to say Russian President Vladimir Putin has a “shtick” about “wanting to look like a tough guy” or that American politicians “tend to smile once in a while”?
Is that old Cold War politics? American propaganda? Would the president have talked that way of Margaret Thatcher?
U.S. commentators are free – in fact are obligated – to criticize human rights violations or foreign policy decisions in the proper forums. But reporters should stick to covering news without inserting commentary. The Olympic Opening Ceremonies were, by any measure, magnificent in special effects, historical illustrations and performances. Yet the failure of one snowflake to turn into an Olympic ring in the graphics was what a network reporter focused on the next day, adding that Russia got more bad news when its athletes won no competitions on opening day.
The slant of American coverage hasn’t gone unnoticed in Russia. A piece in the Russian online newspaper, Pravda.ru, accused NBC of cutting out “all positive moments about Russia,” and censoring a portion depicting the communist period. It noted a U.S. petition drive launched under the twitter hashtag #NBCFail calling on the Obama administration to end NBC’s monopoly on Olympic broadcasts. The petition says American viewers should be able to watch athletes from all nations compete on a world stage, free of “derogatory commentary.”
News reporters might be picking up some of their story lines from the explosion of Twitter feeds out of Sochi – 10 million tweets in the first five days. But trained journalists should be more discerning. This generation is learning how to be widely seen and heard, but with that comes responsibility. Given the jingoism and feeding frenzy of the mainstream media, how will young people learn the value of diplomacy and of engaging even with adversaries?
If Sochi coverage is any example of a free and fair American press, my profession needs to do some serious self-examination.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.