How Will NBC Cover Gay Issues During Sochi Olympics? Mainstream Russian media outlets don't cover gay issues neutrally — let alone positively. So, as the nation gears up to host the Winter Olympics, activists are calling on Western media to shed light on the plight of gay Russians. That puts NBC in the awkward position, as both a journalistic enterprise and a business partner of the Olympic Games.
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How Will NBC Cover Gay Issues During Sochi Olympics?

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How Will NBC Cover Gay Issues During Sochi Olympics?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The Winter Olympics to be held in Russia next month promise a mesmerizing athletic spectacle on ice and snow. But each Olympics also affords a brief global platform for dissidents and host countries to grab the world's attention. The primary root, through the media. And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, America's exclusive broadcaster of the games, NBC, is coming under pressure from gay rights activists.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Jim Bell is the NBC Sports executive overseeing the 2 1/2-week extravaganza, with more than 1,500 hours of coverage over five NBC channels and online of Olympics events from the Black Sea resort of Sochi. If an athlete unfurls a rainbow flag, he'll broadcast it. Otherwise, Bell says...

JIM BELL: Show the Olympics. Show the events, show the competition, show the athletes. This is the athletes' moment. I mean, you know, that's really what it's about.

FOLKENFLIK: Bell says the network will sketch out for viewers the context in which the games take place.

BELL: Our approach is to do a thorough explanation, to talk about President Putin and his really being a driving force behind these games, talk about some of the issues from security to gay rights, to whatever else.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's look at that second element: gay rights. Last June, Vladimir Putin's government banned so-called gay propaganda. That affects reporters and gays. Even neutral news coverage of issues involving gays and lesbians appears to violate that law.

Konstantin Yablotskiy is co-chairman of the Russia LGBT Sports Federation.

KONSTANTIN YABLOTSKIY: Probably it's our last chance to try to change this situation, to change attitudes of Russian society, to show people that we are not marginal sodomites.

FOLKENFLIK: In the past, Yablotskiy participated in the gay games as a figure skater. Now, he says, national networks devote documentaries to denouncing homosexuals. He looks to the Olympics for hope.

YABLOTSKIY: We are normal people who have their normal lives, who can do sports and win medals.

FOLKENFLIK: But how much responsibility for that should NBC bear? Again, Jim Bell.

BELL: We're not there to poke a sharp stick in anybody's eye, but we're not going to shy away from reporting anything either. My colleagues in NBC News will do what they have to do to report stories as they develop. I don't think we're worried about that at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, over at NBC's news division, Senior Vice President Alexandra Wallace recently noted the network has paid attention to gay rights in Sochi itself and in stories about President Obama's appointment of gay athletes to the official U.S. Olympic delegation.

ALEXANDRA WALLACE: Billie Jean King is on the "Today" show on Thursday. We had Brian Boitano on last week. I would hold up our reporting on LGBT issues in Russia, maybe not with Foreign Affairs journal, but I think we've done a good job of it, actually.

FOLKENFLIK: The scenario resembles the 2008 Beijing Olympics: A regime seeking legitimacy is serving as host. Minky Worden says that gives the International Olympic Committee and its media partner both an obligation and a lot of sway. Worden is a senior official at the activist group Human Rights Watch.

MINKY WORDEN: The IOC and Olympic sponsors, including NBC, really dropped the ball last June.

FOLKENFLIK: Worden doesn't distinguish a lot between the two. An NBC official sits on the IOC executive committee, and the network's corporate parent paid $775 million for the rights to broadcast these winter games. She says they should have campaigned against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law.

WORDEN: It's really a double bind. I think the only principled way forward for a company like NBC is to report in a robust way on the Olympics and on human rights abuses that have defined these Olympics.

FOLKENFLIK: The IOC says it has firm assurances from Putin that no one attending the games will face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, though a public protest by athletes would be provocative. Violence met protests at which Russian gays and lesbians kissed.

Videos capturing and celebrating other violent attacks on gays have been uploaded to Russian social media platforms. Human rights advocates say no arrests have ensued. So far, while the network has accelerated its pace of coverage of the nonathletic side of the games in recent weeks, the stories have been more reactive than enterprising.

NBC News executive Alexandra Wallace says her journalists have a single mission.

WALLACE: Our job is to report on what's going on in the world. We're not activists. We're observers and analysts.

FOLKENFLIK: Later this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists will release a report concluding that Russian authorities have intimidated the national media and bought off smaller outlets. It says freedom of the press requires that international news agencies step up and create running room for local news organizations by covering issues such as the rights of gays in Russia.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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