Olympic Coverage or Cover-up?

The Beijing Olympics dominated American television, but what did we really learn? Eric Alterman and George Zornick investigate.

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While the media salivated over Michael Phelps and other sporting accomplishments in Beijing, coverage of other news, like the declining economy and the war in Iraq, slipped. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
While the media salivated over Michael Phelps and other sporting accomplishments in Beijing, coverage of other news, like the declining economy and the war in Iraq, slipped. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

What’s that? You don’t particularly care about pole-vaulting, water polo, or the 4 by 100 meter relay? To tell the truth, neither do we.

But this is our job, so let’s take a look: The Project for Excellence in Journalism just completed a detailed analysis of Olympic coverage in the American media, quantifying how much Americans were exposed to this major world event, and what they may have learned.

The study demonstrated that although the Olympics dominated prime time on NBC and much more of MSNBC, the games received less coverage than the presidential race, but more than anything else, including the war between Russia and Georgia. International competition in sports was apparently more important than that with guns and tanks.

The games crowded out a lot of other important stories, as well. The study found that “coverage of the U.S. economy (at 7 percent during the previous six weeks), was down by more than half to 3 percent during these two weeks. Stories about gas and oil prices, which had been at 5 percent were also down by more than half, to 2 percent. Coverage of the Iraq war also dipped slightly, going from 4 percent in the previous six weeks to 3 percent during the two weeks examined around the Olympics.” These statistics measure coverage from the 48 different news outlets that make up PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index, including outlets from newspapers, online, network TV, cable TV, and radio.

These statistics may be skewed some by the overwhelming amount of coverage given to the games by NBC News. PEJ found that, “together, during the 10 weekdays of NBC News programming studied, the two shows devoted almost half (48 percent) of the airtime to stories about the Games or China. That is more than three times as much coverage as the media overall.”

Note that General Electric, NBC News’ parent company, paid $894 million for the exclusive rights to televise the Beijing Games. That put NBC News journalists “in an unusual position,” as PEJ put it. The network spent a lot of money to get the games, with the expectation that high ratings would provide advertising revenue in return—ratings that were surely driven up because half of all the stories on NBC News were about the games.

PEJ offers a snapshot of the coverage disparity:

“Consider the night of August 11, the first Tuesday of the Games. That evening, NBC Nightly News ran six stories on the Olympics and China (69 percent of their news coverage). That included a brief tour of Tiananmen Square by host Brian Williams and an update on the gold medal-winning exploits of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. In comparison, that same night CBS Evening News ran no stories on either, forgoing even a recap of the day’s results. ABC’s World News Tonight offered a profile of Michael Phelps and how many in China are becoming his fans.”

In any case the Olympics were still a well-covered story throughout the media, at the expense of many others. And the Olympics are not at all irrelevant. The games provided Americans a glimpse of the world stage. China hosted the events, of course, offering a look at how the rising power is attempting to fashion its image. The Olympics featured undeniable interplay with world affairs, best evidenced by President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chatting in the stands as war between Russia and Georgia broke out.

So what stories did Americans see?

Well, there wasn’t much about the host country; “Stories about the opening ceremonies and Chinese preparations for the games both made up 18 percent. China’s political system made up just 2 percent. The political issue that did get sizable attention the week prior was human rights (13 percent), though there was no coverage of the issue once the games began.”

Remember, this is a comprehensive measure of media coverage. We don’t expect the announcers to talk about human rights during a swimming competition, but the media should have treated the Olympics as a geopolitical event as well as an athletic one.

China, at least, saw it as such. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote from Beijing: “In all my decades at The Post, this is the first event I’ve covered at which I was certain that the main point of the exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with a splendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sports event inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative but to be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. I suspect it worked.”

Why they had “little alternative,” we can’t say we understand. But it is certainly the case that China’s abysmal human rights record was rarely front-page news. To the degree it happened at all, it was done obliquely. The media gave considerable attention, for instance, to the girl who sang the Chinese “Ode to the Motherland,” when it was revealed that she had actually lip-synched the song because the actual singer was deemed “not cute enough” to participate in the ceremonies herself.

As PEJ notes, “The story of the dubbed singing voice was often portrayed as an illustration of official Chinese manipulation and control, a kind of proxy for stories about government authority.”

It’s an interesting tidbit, surely, but just a fraction of what’s interesting—or disturbing—about the Chinese government. My Nation colleague Dave Zirin presents a long list of things the media could have covered, from the Tibetan citizens removed from their service jobs by state law for the duration of the games, to the 2 million people evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic facilities. Surely these stories deserved coverage—and were far more shocking than lip-synching.

The oddly apolitical coverage of the games is perhaps best demonstrated by the inescapable footage of President Bush frolicking with the women’s beach volleyball team or hanging out in the stands. Sportscaster Bob Costas actually gave Bush a tough interview, but the rest of the time, you wouldn’t know this was the man had a historically low approval rating at home and an even lower one among his fellow leaders at the games. Bush even went with political goals in mind—but you didn’t hear much about them.

The Olympics gave the American media a chance to paint a more detailed portrait of a great power emerging on the world stage in a manner likely to affect politics for decades, if not centuries. Alas, they chose fun and games instead … much as they do when assigned to cover genuine politics.

If you have a moment, take a look at the largely unheralded case of a certain Hans von Spakovsky. Last year, this gentleman was denied a seat on the Federal Elections Committee after six career professionals in the Justice Department sent a protest letter insisting that he had attempted to transform the Department of Justice’s voting rights section from its “historic mission to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws without regard to politics, to pursuing an agenda which placed the highest priority on the partisan political goals of the political appointees who supervised the Section.”

This being the Bush administration, he was soon named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. There, he will be in charge of the USCCR’s report on the Justice Department’s monitoring of the upcoming presidential elections. Talking Points Memo has been all over von Spakovsky and his “history of backing efforts to make voting more difficult,” as they describe it. They had an exclusive report on von Spakovsky’s new job, but sadly, if it wasn’t ignored, it was reported without any citation for TPM—and off the front page, as happened with The Washington Post.

One would think that, after seven and a half years, the media would learn that it’s better for the public if you catch incompetent and/or dangerous government hires before there’s some sort of calamity. Yet another “heckuva job”…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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