Beijing or Bust?

The Beijing Olympics, broadcast in the U.S. exclusively by
NBC Universal, is poised to be the most watched Olympics in history, with a
record 114 million American viewers tuning in, according to Nielsen media
research. However, NBC’s ratings obscure controversies surrounding the quality
of the coverage. Many feel that China’s
“coming out party” should serve as an occasion for the international community
to learn about, and critically evaluate, the Dragon’s path to development.


Bob Costas, host of NBC’s Beijing Games coverage
Image Courtesy of Gizmodo

In a Washington
Post Online article
from last Wednesday, Paul Farhi wrote:

“It’s what
NBC hasn’t, and probably won’t, show that gives me pause.  Political protests? Not on this channel; no sir.  Beijing’s fearful
pollution?  Maybe, but only if a
marathoner coughs up a lung or it spoils a beauty shot.  Tibet?   China’s role in Darfur?   The aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake?  Why be unreasonable. . . Tiananmen?  Mao’s barbarities?  No…

NBC has
succeeded in screening out anything unpleasant…indeed, it has gone in precisely
the opposite direction… Just once in the next two weeks, I’m hoping for
something more than a postcard. I’m hoping that NBC might let just a little bit
of reality peak through the unreal haze of Beijing.”

Some insist that the broadcasters’ only job is to showcase and
discuss sports–not culture or politics. The coverage has certainly been sports-centric. But Bob Costas and the
NBC gang are doing more than just talking sports. They’ve attempted to represent Chinese
culture, namely through nightly segments by correspondent Mary Carillo. So far she’s taken a ride on the Tibet
Railway, covered panda mating (Carillo: “nothing cutens up a country like panda
bears”), visited the Three Gorges Dam, and interviewed the artist who created
the Beijing Olympics symbol.

The Three Gorges Dam is one example of an extremely
controversial project: It forcibly removed 1.5 million Chinese from their
homes, but potentially saves millions more Chinese from annual flooding. No mention of the debate in her piece. In her Tibet Railway segment, Carillo failed
to mention anything about China’s
crackdown on Tibet
or its history of human rights violations.

In a comment responding to Farhi’s article, a reader wrote:
“NBC has done an admirable job with its Olympic coverage. It has touched on China’s
political history and some of the news-related issues that have surfaced (the
murder, pollution, etc.). But it has not become so immersed in these periphery
concerns that it departs from the type of programming that appeals to its core
audience. I’m a news junkie, but I don’t watch the Olympics expecting brutally
honest public affairs analysis between Michael Phelps’ golden moments. I would
prefer politics were entirely separate…”

The NBC journalists’ forays into cultural and political
commentary attempt to strike a balance of honesty and respect for the host
country. Have you been watching the Olympics on NBC? What do you think of the coverage?
[Maybe]: Do you agree with the reader
that sports highlights should be kept separate from hard-hitting reporting on
culture, politics, and geography?

For more about “Olmpic impacts” on host cities and nations,
be sure to check out last week’s post “What
the Games Will Mean for China.”

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