Acton Institute Powerblog

What message does NBC’s Olympics coverage send?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The network admits that diplomacy will not dissuade the CCP from committing atrocities against its people—but why assist in promoting a veneer of normalcy?

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The media world is not a principled one, and its decisions are often not moral in nature. Standards of coverage are rarely dictated by the metric of right versus wrong but by popular versus unpopular—determined more by what’s likely to attract viewership than what certain subsets of the viewing public may deem the right thing to do. Despite this depressing reality, American media do have a remaining obligation, as voices in a free society, to act within the parameters of basic moral standards: Don’t lie, don’t misquote, don’t infuse with hysteria, and don’t pretend like burning down city blocks in the name of “justice” is somehow rational or justified.

This gets dicey in the world of American domestic politics, and there are deep arguments to be had about how different outlets succeed or fail to live up to their obligations. Answering this question, however, should be less dicey: Should American media support totalitarian regimes engaged in genocide on the other side of the world? “No” would be a reasonable response. Yet one news outlet decided that a “no” was too much to ask of it.

In January, NBC announced it would not be sending its announcers to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, keeping their teams home to call the events from their American studios. Was this NBC standing up to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its brutal genocide against China’s Uyghur population? Was it a brave refusal to share the same stage with CCP advocates and give even a hint of legitimacy to China’s veneer of normalcy? To avoid waxing poetic: No, it was not. It was because of “COVID concerns,” even though the network is maintaining a significant presence in Beijing, including that of lead prime time host Mike Tirico, rendering this decision truly nothing more than a corporate response to public health directives.

Let’s be clear about this: Is every life lost to COVID-19 a tragedy, especially given the accessibility of vaccines? Yes. Any life lost too soon, and especially needlessly, is a tragedy. Which means it is also a tragedy when innocent Uyghurs are tortured, forcibly sterilized, and subjected to crimes against humanity—crimes an independent tribunal labeled as genocide in December of last year. That is a tragedy the CCP has had no qualms about perpetrating.

When considering the question of Olympics under questionable host countries, the obvious parallel is the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As newly appointed chancellor Adolf Hitler brought the Olympics to Berlin, he prepared to spread a vision of Aryan racial supremacy to the world via Germany’s intended domination at the Games. Three years before the Olympics, the Nazis were already organizing boycotts of Jewish businesses, suspending basic human rights, and opening the first permanent concentration camps at Dachau. Yet the Games rolled on—America sent 359 athletes to Berlin, including a track-and-field star and sharecropper’s son named Jesse Owens.

Before Owens ever landed in Germany, however, he and other black athletes faced pushback from figures like NAACP acting secretary Walter White. White wrote Owens a letter urging him to forego the 1936 Games, asserting that “the very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them an unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry” by their boycott. Owens clearly thought otherwise, going on to win four gold medals and crushing Hitler’s dream of Aryan domination on the world stage.

The critics might argue that America’s (and Owens’) success in Berlin is sufficient precedent to proceed in Beijing. See how American athletes confronted Hitler’s goal of athletic supremacy—and won? Through the triumph of Owens, the story shifted from one of Aryan superiority and totalitarian victory to one of a marginalized hero from humble beginnings rising from the ashes of prejudice to burn Hitler’s race narratives to the ground. That was the narrative that was finally written about the 1936 Games. But 2022 presents a different story. Whether American athletes should attend the Games is an entirely different question from what message is being sent by NBC’s broadcasting of the Beijing Games.

For there to be some kind of equivalence between American athletes triumphing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and America’s TV coverage of China in 2022, NBC would have to use its power and influence not only to denounce the genocidal practices of the CCP—it would also have to pull back the curtain on the CCP’s attempt to con the world into thinking everything there is “normal.”

In fairness to the network, NBC has not completely ignored this issue. It released a report discussing “reported human rights abuses” in China, noting the White House’s diplomatic boycott and Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s language of “crimes against humanity” being perpetuated by the CCP. Interestingly, the network also admitted that the CCP is “not going to back down” in the face of mere diplomatic boycotts. So are we to assume that a network boycott would have been similarly pointless? A fatalistic attitude justifies much, including policies that conveniently line up with NBC’s corporate interests.

Let’s be frank: NBC spent $7.75 billion for rights to cover the Olympics through 2032. How likely was it that the network would jeopardize its investment? And if China’s Uyghur genocide does not warrant pulling coverage on the part of the network, is there any geopolitical atrocity that would, given the money and stakes involved? Must corporate interests take precedence over basic human decency?

NBC had a chance to repudiate CCP atrocities. Pulling its Beijing coverage would admittedly have resulted in a severe financial hit for a network that has enjoyed exclusive Olympic broadcasting rights since 2002. But it would have provided an opportunity for an American news network to stand behind the values of freedom and basic human rights over and against the totalitarian values represented by the CCP. At the very, very least, NBC could have left its rationale for keeping its announcers home vague so as to offer, perhaps, a hint of repudiating CCP atrocities. As of today, they move forward with coverage. This is not a heroic, brave, or risk-seeking choice. It is a cowardly choice, one that will broadcast the CCP’s preferred messaging to the civilized world and cooperate in televising the mirage that absolutely nothing is rotten in the state of China.

The Olympics have historically been an event that, if for only a couple of weeks, promoted a kind of global solidarity. This year should have seen that solidarity increase, with the world slowly emerging from COVID’s shadow to once again join in its time-honored tradition of celebrating athletic excellence and sportsmanship. Instead, the Olympics are taking place against the backdrop of a totalitarian slave state actively engaging in and covering up genocide, and an American media outlet either too misinformed or too cowardly to take a stand against it. Who will stand in solidarity now with those suffering under China’s oppressive regime? And who will stand in solidarity with the Uyghurs, who most certainly will not be enjoying the Winter Olympics 2022 spectacle.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.