COLUMNS

  /  

February 18, 2014

The real Sochi problem

American media’s portrayal of Olympics is biased.

Had it not been for the Sochi broadcast, it would have been nearly impossible to even imagine anyone doing a worse job televising an event than NBC during the London Olympics, like when they cut over an hour of programming from the Opening and Closing ceremonies (most notably a moving tribute to London terrorist victims because—get this— “our programming is tailored for the U.S. audience”), to make room for the clearly very important premiere of Animal Practice, a sitcom that got cancelled five episodes later.

But like the truly committed athletes they broadcast, NBC still somehow managed to outdo themselves.

Because above and beyond Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira’s demonstrated incompetence as hosts, there reigned an undeniable obsession with making everything about Russia—and by association the Sochi Olympics and its Opening Ceremony—look as bad as possible.

This time around, NBC pulled out the scissors to scrap key parts of the International Olympic Committee’s anti-discrimination statement. Not the entire thing, but a carefully-selected segment—great, right? NBC also cut the Russian Police Choir’s rendition of “Get Lucky”—my favorite part of the entire ceremony—but I’ll give them credit for featuring their performance on the Today Show, albeit to a much smaller audience. In place of Animal Practice, we got hosts Lauer and Vieira’s unbelievably pretentious, practically painful excuse for commentary, which somehow managed to be both lazy and relentless at the same time.

Between the hosts’ ignorant dismissal of the Cyrillic alphabet (“If you need more information, Google it”) and their incessant speculation about what “Putin is trying to project,” the hosts managed to find something wrong with nearly everything they saw, demonstrating a complete inability to divorce their distaste for Russian politics from their experience—and by consequence, their viewers’ experience—of this incredible international event.

Let me refresh your memory with some highlights:

  • Vieira’s explanation on why Macedonia was following Brazil in the Parade of Nations: “The order of these countries is based on the Cyrillic alphabet. If you need more information, Google it.” Better advice may have been to pay attention to the presentation of the Cyrillic alphabet that had taken place just moments earlier—an admittedly difficult feat, as Vieira and her co-host had talked over it nearly nonstop.
  • Rather than make any attempt to provide even the slightest bit of context or explanation, Lauer let viewers know that some of the displays and letters on their screens might be “unfamiliar to a western audience.” But no worries, the man did do his research, helpfully explaining the meaning of “YOLO” just moments later.
  • “It’s often impossible to separate the Olympics from politics” was repeated ad nauseam, as was speculation about what “Putin is trying to project.” I wonder what Lauer was trying to project by wondering out loud if Iranian and Israeli athletes—who were walking back-to-back in the Parade of Nations—would have any “interactions.”
  • “Interesting that the period they skipped over was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years of Boris Yeltsin.” Indeed, as nearly every news organization in the U.S. has since pointed out, “they” told a “whitewashed,” “highly selective“ version of Russian history that failed to mention the country’s extensive history of corruption, famine, gulags, or its turbulent, US-assisted transition to capitalism. Though no one in Russia—let alone in the US—is ignorant of the brutal realities of all these things, I have complete confidence that the United States will set a much better example by highlighting its extensive history of slavery, sexism, and bloody imperialism at its next internationally broadcast event.
  • Towards the end, we got a pretty cool replay (and several solid minutes of thrilling anchor commentary about) a snowflake that just wouldn’t open. NBC later devoted quite a bit of its news coverage to criticizing Russian state television for omitting this part from its own replays, something I trust NBC would never do themselves. For several days after, thousands of readers mistook the satirical Daily Currant’s “Man Responsible For Olympic Ring Mishap Found Dead In Sochi” headline for fact.

But the U.S. media’s repeated attempts to make a mockery of the Sochi Olympics didn’t begin with NBC’s abysmal coverage of the Opening Ceremony. Though NBC has certainly played its part in constructing a hyper-negative image of the Sochi Olympics in the United States, their broadcast was but a symptom of a highly biased, hyper-critical reporting trend that had already been brewing for months. Between the subsequently disproven NBC report that claimed visitors to Russia would have their computers and phones hacked almost immediately upon arrival and the misleading, highly selective stories about the Sochi Olympics’s exorbitant price tag that had dominated U.S. channels in the lead-up to the games, by the time the Opening Ceremony was to begin, the onslaught of negative coverage was already well underway.

Even worse, many media outlets grew so entrenched in this race to out-negative one another that they began publishing everything from hyperbolic half-truths to flat-out lies under the guise of real reporting. Because these smaller, less significant, harder-to-verify stories tended to gain comparatively less attention, they had a much lower chance of being disproven but still made a powerful negative point through the sheer quantity of their presence in the media.

Interestingly, although the Russian national media is itself no stranger to stretching the truth, Russian readers are well aware of this fact and take a critical eye to everything they read in the press. Americans, however, are generally anything but discerning in their viewing and reading. The U.S. media has a reputation for taking a much more equitable and inclusive approach to its coverage—a tendency which deserves great praise—and that reputation, like any, comes with the responsibility and expectation of maintenance.

But with regard to the Sochi Olympics, we’ve instead encountered a situation where we’re lucky to find even one article that tells the whole truth (and nothing but). Instead of giving audiences the facts they need to hear, our media has taken a collective step towards the Fox News approach, leaving viewers feeling informed while in fact being less informed than if they’d watched and read nothing at all.

In the midst of all this, there have been far too many stories fixating on the smallest of Sochi Olympic evils, and far too few focusing on, you know, sports. Even many reports that claim to be about sports often end up devolving into discussions of Putin’s politics—an approach that devalues the importance of the athletes’ achievements, and more broadly, what the Olympic Games are meant to be about. And despite all these reports, the Sochi Olympics have gotten off to a great start, with no major problems (or #sochiproblems) in sight.

The thing about this highly biased approach to reporting is that it isn’t just bad journalism. It’s bad sportsmanship.

Now, it’s true that some of these reports raise important criticisms and concerns. It’s absolutely important to discuss Russia’s many problems, and I am excited to (finally) see so many take a genuine interest in Russia, and to see the international community rally behind important causes like LGBT rights. In criticizing the way the western media has approached covering the Sochi Olympics, I am in no way supporting, condoning, or attempting to minimize or excuse the significance or damage of Russia’s brazen corruption and human rights violations.

But there is a way to highlight the many positive aspects of the Sochi Olympics while still opposing the host country’s stance on human rights, and a way to praise other countries’ athletes’ achievements while still opposing those countries’ political leaders or regimes. Perhaps more importantly, there is a way to provide a clear, in-context picture of what is going on without resorting to half-truths or hyperboles. But this is precisely what the U.S. media has failed to do.

Not since 1980 have we seen the media take such a collectively negative, biased stance against a host country.

More recently, Mitt Romney (who helped organize the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002) was heavily criticized for his own criticisms of the London Olympics’ preparedness in 2012. In some ways, it reflects both the remaining aftertaste of the Cold War and the general attitude the United States has taken towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union: Our country is objectively “better” than yours; therefore, we are qualified to provide prescriptive recommendations that we expect you to adhere to perfectly, reserving the right to criticize you for any and all ways in which you may fail to meet our standards.

But it will be far more beneficial for everyone—for the mutual respect between our nations, for all the hard-working athletes competing at the Sochi Olympics, and for us all as readers and citizens—if we’re just told the complete, contextual truth.

Though coverage has, thankfully, grown considerably better over the past few days, the U.S. media’s heavily biased, ignorant tone on all things Russia has anything but subdued. It’s likely that, come time for the Closing Ceremony on February 23, this coverage will resume in full force.

If you only take away one thing, let it be this: The coverage is, and will continue to be, biased—highly biased.

Draw your own conclusions.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in economics. 

MOST READ