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Pierce: NBC's Olympic team fears bashing Russia's gay bashing

Published July 31, 2013 10:09 am

Olympics • NBC chairman tap dances around coverage of human-rights issues.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Beverly Hills, Calif.

NBC is in a tough spot when it comes to covering the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the network isn't off to a real good start.

The host country, Russia, is inarguably a repressive regime. And, if recent events are any indication, it's growing more repressive. President Vladimir Putin last month signed a law that bans even mentioning "non-traditional sexual relations," and violence against gays is bad and getting worse.

The fear is that, in order to keep the host country happy, NBC won't even report on what's happening. That viewers will see a majestic travelogue that goes out of its way to avoid dealing with the harsh realities.

And NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus didn't do anything to allay those fears. He tried to argue that Sochi, "like every Olympic site, comes with political and social issues." And he said repeatedly that NBC would address the issue in terms of how they are "relevant to the Games."

"We will address it if it becomes an issue," he said.

The simple fact that the Olympics are in a country where a minority is legislated against and faces the constant threat of violence means that it is relevant. That it is already an issue, even though Lazarus was loath to admit that.

Given that NBC is all about doing feature stories during its Olympic broadcasts — something that won't change in Sochi — his non-answers are patently ridiculous. The only reason Lazarus is hedging is he fears angering the Russians.

Let's pretend, for a moment, that NBC had the rights to a sporting event in South Africa while apartheid was still the law of the land there. (Clearly, it wouldn't have happened because South Africa was ostracized. But let's pretend.)

Would NBC have telecast the event without mentioning apartheid? Would Lazarus be telling us they'd do it only if it affected the event?

Of course not. But that's what he's telling us about systematic persecution of and violence against gays.

Lazarus is in a no-win situation. Clearly, he's hoping Russia will change its laws before February — something no one expects to happen.

"Right now they have a law that is the law of their land, and governments across the world have different laws," he said, tap dancing through a minefield with all the grace of a rhinoceros in a phone booth. "But as long as it doesn't affect us or the athletes — we will acknowledge that it exists, but I don't know what it's going to mean to us yet."

To be clear, NBC's critics aren't suggesting that the network boycott the Olympics. What they're hoping is that NBC do its job and report on the situation, not pretend that it's not within their purview unless an athlete is arrested for holding his boyfriend's hand.

You can certainly argue that the Russians are using the Games to validate their policies. And TV coverage that ignores Russia's human-rights abuses plays right into their hands.

"I didn't say we would ignore it," Lazarus said. "If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it."

But his vague, evasive answers — his unwillingness to take anything approaching a strong stand against the Russians' anti-gay laws — didn't exactly make anyone feel confident that NBC's top priority isn't keeping the regime happy.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter: @ScottDPierce.