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, will broadcast images of athletes unfurling rainbow flags in protest.
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 executive committee, 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 its news division 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.
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 international news outlets to step up and create running room for local media outlets — on issues such as the rights of gays in Russia.