Can the Games Begin? :: Success Breeds...WHAT?
Editor’s note: This is the third in a four part series about the 2014 Sochi Olympics. This feature can be read in full in EDGE’s iPad magazine.
For now, the jury is definitely out on what’s in store in Sochi. When the Winter Olympics begin this month, there will be many, many questions hanging in the air, from the threat of a terrorist attack to the possibility of shoddy construction creating serious fissures.
The protests here in the States against Russia’s official and unofficial LGBT pogrom continued into January. In a "zap" by Queer Nation on Jan. 16, activists surprised Matt Lauer, who will be in Sochi, by unfurling a 90-foot rainbow banner outside "The Today Show" while Lauer was interviewing fans outside Rockefeller Center in New York. The action put NBC on further notice that its coverage of the Olympics would be subject to scrutiny by LGBT and human rights groups.
"Covering the gay and lesbian members of the U.S. delegation to the Winter Games is not the same as covering Russia’s dismal rights record. NBC must report on the Kremlin’s murderous policies right now," said one of the protesters, who called the coverage "shameful."
Only a few days before the ad hoc protest, Lauer himself admitted, "We’re in for an interesting ride." Lauer conceded that the Games were taking place in an atmosphere where "there are a lot of groups that would like to take the opportunity of the Olympics to make a point."
NBC Sports has been put in the uncomfortable position of "damned if you do, damned if you don’t." If the network gives air time to LGBT and human-rights activists, it will be accused by purists of giving sway to political correctness at the expense of making the Games about the games. If it doesn’t cover them, it will stand accused in the court of public opinion of allowing itself to be a pawn of a despotic government.
Already, the network has invited comparisons to the way the U.S. media covered the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, which has become infamous as a public-relations coup for Adolph Hitler to highlight how well he was running the German nation. When Jay Leno, outgoing host of "The Tonight Show," had as a guest Meredith Viera, who will be traveling to Sochi, he put her on the hot seat. "This is how it started in Nazi Germany," Leno told her. "’Oh, the Jews, let’s put them over here.’ It makes me uncomfortable."
"We go there with our eyes open," Lauer has said. But then the head of NBC’s Olympics coverage seemed to undercut his comment when he noted that, "our people are there to cover the Olympics and not necessarily to offer social commentary."
The head of NBC Sports had to take the extraordinary step of reassuring the world that it would do everything in its power to protect employees in the face of the terrorist threat. On top of that, NBCUniversal’s chief diversity officer had to issue a public directive that the company had the backs of LGBT employees deployed to Sochi. NBC executives have been quick to point to stories like coverage of Obama’s appointments to the Olympic delegation. "I would hold up our reporting on LGBT issues in Russia," one executive said. "I think we’ve done a good job of it, actually."
Or not: Queer Nation adroitly discovered a Reuters story on Putin’s state-of-the-nation address that had been altered for NBC News’ website. With the same byline, the NBC story rewrote the story to eliminate several references made by the Reuters writers to Russia’s dismal human-rights record.