A lot of times at the Television Critics Association press tour, what makes news isn’t so much the questions that are answered but the ones that are avoided. The networks spend at least a little time making sure every single panelist is prepped before a panel, and they make sure questions that will obviously be asked have semi-satisfying answers. This is what made it all the more curious when NBC’s panel for the network’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, not only didn’t have an answer to the most obvious question that would be asked but didn’t seem interested in even broaching the question.
For those who haven’t been following the story, controversy has been kicked up around the Sochi Games because of Russia’s new, horrifying anti-gay laws. The country has banned the distribution of any materials meant to promote same-sex relationships to minors, in one of those laws that could be taken to mean a great many different things when it comes to the over-zealous, and beatings of gay rights activists are on the rise in the country, according to Amnesty International. Now, it’s not as if Russia under Vladimir Putin is known as a bastion of human rights throughout the world, but the anti-gay laws seem particularly egregious, especially because they specifically target a minority group and single them out for political persecution at best and violence at worst. The International Olympic Committee has expressed its displeasure with these laws, and it is also attempting to negotiate assurances that LGBT athletes who attend the games won’t suddenly be seized in the night or subjected to stiff fines by the Russian government.
How, exactly, does NBC Sports enter into all of this? Well, by virtue of the fact that its Olympics panel was almost certainly briefed on the fact that this particular issue would likely come up in the press conference. NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus tried to head these issues off at the pass by saying in his opening statement vague words about “political issues” surrounding the Games and how NBC would cover those political issues if warranted, as it covers all political issues in all host countries it visits. But, he insisted, right now was too early to speculate on such matters, because the Games aren’t until February (when Russia will presumably have spontaneously become a progressive wonderland for gay rights).
If that wasn’t bad enough, Lazarus answered a question from the floor about the issue with an explanation that simply made things even more obfuscated. NBC would cover Russia’s anti-gay laws, but only in the event that they had an impact on the Games. It’s that last half of that sentence that’s key, because the anti-gay laws are having an impact on the Games right now, since the IOC is negotiating with Russia, yet NBC Sports’ panel acted as if this were a done deal, as if what the IOC were doing was going to make the Olympics Village a bubble completely safe from Russia’s laws. And, honestly, that will probably be the case, even though Russia has fined foreigners under the anti-gay laws already, because the country will know that prosecuting foreign LGBT athletes during the Games will be a lightning rod for controversy, and it will want to avoid that when a prominent international spotlight is shining on it. “If it has an impact on the Games” is so vague as to be virtually meaningless. What would it take? Protestors of the laws taking to the rink during a hockey match?
The truth is that “if it has an impact on the Games” essentially will allow NBC to ignore these human rights issues as much as it wants to, the better to not tarnish an institution that makes it billions of dollars every other year. And there’s a reasonable argument to be made that covering the Games as a sporting event means essentially ignoring all issues in a host country that have nothing to do with sports. It’s not as if NBC did a marvelous job reporting on human rights abuses or environmental issues when reporting on 2008’s Summer Games in Beijing, and it’s not as if NBC News acquits itself wonderfully in covering issues of illegal detentions of non-Americans and U.S. citizens held without trial in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And those things are happening in the network’s own country! This is to say nothing of the fact that NBC is headed up by Robert Greenblatt, who is himself a gay man who’s done wonders for the network’s diversity on almost all fronts. And yet it’s going to ignore these issues, unless they have an impact on the Games?
Yet there’s often been a tacit acknowledgement by the networks that the Olympics may be a sporting event first and foremost, but they’re also a political and news event on some secondary level. This was particularly true during the Cold War, when the Games became a political hot potato on multiple occasions, and sportscaster Jim McKay’s anchoring of ABC’s Olympics desk during the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes remains one of the most notable events in TV journalism history. And even as recently as 2004’s Summer Games in Athens, NBC was interspersing its coverage of the Games with stories about how the host country had endured substantial problems and financial woes in getting ready for the Games, issues that helped lead to the country’s future insolvency.
But we’ve entered a world where NBC, as part of a multi-national entertainment conglomerate, needs, more than anything else, to keep countries like China and Russia placated, that they’ll keep buying movie tickets and importing American TV shows. And even beyond that, there’s the fact that NBC’s coverage of the Olympics has gradually morphed into the Today show over the years, turning into a bit of lightly sports-flavored infotainment that aims to provide some of the best moments of the day’s sporting events, lightly flavored with human interest pieces and inoffensive fluff. Reporting on serious news events—even as a short, five-minute piece before the Opening Ceremonies or something similar—would undercut that vibe and remove the sense NBC’s Olympics coverage provides of all countries as elaborate dioramas in a doll museum, wearing traditional dress and behaving according to pre-rehearsed scripts.
No one is going to say that NBC should turn its Olympics coverage into a 24/7 show about human rights abuses in Russia—though any coverage of international news would be nice—but by waffling on whether or not it’s going to talk about these issues at all and giving itself the wiggle room to avoid talking about them entirely, the network creates the impression that it simply doesn’t think they’re important, not when a billion-dollar enterprise is involved. The Olympics are a news event just as surely as they’re a sporting event, and that NBC didn’t even have a good bullshit answer to the question of how it plans to cover an important news story in a country that just so happens to be hosting the Olympics is all too telling.