It’s an age old competition at the Olympics, between those who think the games should include a little context and those that think they should be solely a showcase for sport. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi’s been watching the Beijing games as a fan, but he argues that in Beijing there’s no excuse for the lack of context in the coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: An age-old competition has played out at the Olympics. And it's not the pommel horse or the uneven bars, or even the human steeplechase. It's the battle between those who think the Games should include news and those who believe they should be solely inspiring celebrations of sport.
Certainly NBC has done well with and by the Games. They've earned higher ratings than the previous two Summer Olympics, and won the network ratings war by margins not seen in decades.
Variety reports that nearly 200 million viewers have seen at least part of NBC's coverage, which has included breathless reporting on some of China's biggest, and by "big" we mean enormous, attractions, including this segment on the Three Gorges Dam. [CLIP] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The dam is one and a half miles wide and 60 stories, straight down. You're probably wondering the same thing I wondered when I first saw the dam: why not just use beavers? [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] How many people did it take to build this dam? [ANSWER IN CHINESE] [LAUGHS] Did he use any beavers? PAUL FARHI: You have to twist yourself in knots to get these things without mentioning they forcibly removed a million and a half people in the path of the dam. They just forced them off their land and sent them to the countryside. Just a sentence! BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Paul Fahri, staff writer for The Washington Post. He's been watching the Olympics with a fan's fervor. But after a week or so he got the sinking feeling that he and millions of others were missing out on some of the biggest stories surrounding the Beijing Games. PAUL FAHRI: You know, the stories I'm talking about —pollution, protest and China's place in the geo-political system, I think we're all adults, we're all mature, we could handle a little bit of that kind of context. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But NBC has been reporting the real news, on The Nightly News with Brian Williams. Doesn't that coverage count? PAUL FAHRI: It certainly counts, but The Nightly News reaches perhaps eight million viewers a night, people very interested in the news, obviously. The Olympics are reaching about 30 million viewers, on average. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the reason why those 30 million people tune in is to watch the Games. To put news there would be like sneaking a report on the sub-prime mortgage crisis onto American Idol. I mean, it's a worthy cause, perhaps, but it's essentially patronizing, like sneaking medicine into ice cream. PAUL FAHRI: Well, there's no question the Olympics are escapist television. But that's not all they are. They're connected to a lot of themes and a lot of events that have gone on around them, for instance, the torch relay.
And, in fact, by excluding these things, NBC has given an extremely false view of what is happening in China. It has gone out of its way, in some ways, to propagandize the image of China. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, there has been a little criticism baked into the coverage. And there have been frequent references to the Chinese athletic farm system, where young athletes are taken from their families and trained by the state to compete. That's a way of noting that this system isn't like ours. PAUL FAHRI: Yes, and I found that very interesting because it begged the question — really, how is their athletic system different from us, which, of course, would lead you to the question is how is their government different from ours.
They really have stopped very short on NBC of telling you about the very things that they've raised kind of parenthetically. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, we do know that that little girl was swapped out for another one during the opening song. We all know that the TV presentation of the fireworks was ginned up. PAUL FAHRI: We do because the rest of the news media covered it, but not NBC. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that's the point, right? It's out there. PAUL FAHRI: Yes, so what is NBC so afraid of? And I'll tell you what it's afraid of. It's afraid of letting the real world intrude on the fantasy that it has created around the Olympics. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've written that NBC has been cautious to a fault, because of the vast amounts of money that they've invested in the Games. And, you know, this did sound a little conspiratorial. What's the problem with their purchase of the rights to broadcast these Games and the Games in 2010 in Vancouver, the Winter Olympics, and also the 2012 Summer Games in London? How does that stack the deck for the coverage? PAUL FAHRI: There's absolutely nothing wrong with them purchasing those rights. But there are certain kinds of understandings about the ways in which you will present the telecast of the event that you've bought the rights to. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the risk here that you bum out the viewers by showing the dark side of these nations? PAUL FAHRI: Yes, I think that's exactly the risk. And when you do that, you don't bring the viewers in the state of mind that the advertisers would like them to be in. You don't want them agitated and asking questions about the political context. BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was so much criticism of the choice of Beijing, to begin with, that I think a lot of people wouldn't be happy with the coverage no matter how critical it was. People were just offended by the choice. Do you think that this might be part of your dissatisfaction? PAUL FAHRI: I don't have a particular problem with Beijing getting the Olympics. But once you award the rights to a particular place, I think all bets are off. You open yourself and your society and your history to scrutiny by the people who are coming to your country.
NBC is coming to China to cover the Olympics, but NBC is also coming to China to tell us about China. For instance every evening we see Bob Costas sitting in front of the Forbidden City with a huge picture of Mao looming over his shoulder. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] PAUL FAHRI: Well, who is that guy? And maybe Bob, you want to tell us a bit about Mao? BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can't argue with that. Paul, thank you very much. PAUL FAHRI: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Fahri is a staff writer for The Washington Post. He's been writing about the Olympics at the Playback blog on washingtonpost.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: As we review a nation growing at an astronomical rate, I'm appropriately assisted by one of the world's tallest men, Mao Tse-Tung and his lovely wife. [CLIP] [CHINESE] Ni hao, Mr. Bao [ANOTHER MAN ANSWERS IN CHINESE] All right, let's start with the Great Wall of China.