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Millions of television viewers will inevitably tune in to NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, which kicks off on Thursday with team figure skating and slopestyle skiing. But the network will be under a microscope for its coverage of events that will not be happening on the ice rinks and ski slopes.
The Human Rights Campaign plans to track NBC’s coverage of Russia’s troublesome anti-gay laws during the 17 days of Olympic competition. The law makes expressions of homosexuality, or “propaganda,” illegal, putting LGBT Russians and those visiting the country in legal jeopardy, but also spurring violence against many in that community.
“NBC has a unique opportunity to report on Russia’s inhumane assault on the rights of LGBT people to the millions of American television viewers tuning in to watch the Olympic Games over the next few weeks,” said HRC president Chad Griffin in a statement. “They’ve promised to not shy away from covering the issue, and we will hold them to their word.”
NBC Sports executives and anchors have said that while they are in Sochi to cover the Olympics and the athletes competing there, they will not ignore the news stories that present themselves, including the LGBT issue as well as the threat of terrorism. Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, sits in the shadow of the restive Caucasus Mountains. And terrorist groups have vowed to strike during the Games.
Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, told reporters that his team is not in Sochi “to poke a sharp stick in anybody’s eye, but we’re not going to shy away from reporting anything either.” He added that the sports division will rely on the considerable resources of NBC News in breaking news situations. Indeed, the news division has filed dozens of pieces on both issues, and NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel remains in Sochi reporting on the terrorism angle.
“My colleagues in NBC News will ask appropriate questions,” added Bell during a press briefing on Jan. 7. “They’ll do what they have to do to report stories as they develop. I don’t think we’re worried about that at all.”
HRC will post daily reports tracking NBC’s coverage on its website at HRC.org/Russia. Several weeks after the law was passed last June, Griffin sent a letter to NBCUni executives, including CEO Steve Burke and NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, urging the network to “expose this inhumane and unjust law” during their broadcast. And NBCUni executives felt compelled to issue their own letter to employees reassuring them that the company is taking their safety seriously in Sochi.
While previous Olympic Games have focused a worldwide spotlight on one geopolitical issue or another, Russia presents several at the same time, including the apparently rampant state corruption during the $50 billion remaking of Sochi from a sleepy seaside village into a world-class sports destination. (According to many reporters in Sochi to cover the Games, the latter efforts have been woefully inadequate, with Tweets about the subpar accommodations — no light bulbs, running water, door handles — bouncing around Twitter earlier this week.)
Griffin and HRC members also have called on the International Olympic Committee to publicly condemn the law and call for its repeal. And last December, HRC made its first contribution, in the amount of $100,000, to the Russia Freedom Fund, which benefits LGBT activists and advocacy groups in Russia. Celebrities and athletes, including skier Bode Miller, Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, Madonna, Andy Cohen, Lady Gaga, Chelsea Handler, Ricky Martin, Kristen Bell, Kevin Bacon, Jonah Hill, Matt Damon, Robin Thicke, Russell Simmons and Sarah Silverman have joined the HRC in denouncing the law.
Groups have also targeted Olympic sponsors; NBC has booked close to $1 billion in advertising for Sochi. On Jan. 31, a coalition of 40 groups from the U.S., Europe and Russia, which included HRC, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, released an open letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors.
“LGBT people must not be targeted with violence or deprived of their ability to advocate for their own equality,” the letter said. “As all eyes turn toward Sochi, we ask you to stand with us.”
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