Going for Gold: Journalism & the Sochi Olympics

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Part of the reason the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) exists is to keep establishment media organizations in check, as they have historically failed to do that themselves. And when it comes to the Sochi Olympics, many journalists appear intent on outperforming each other as they go for gold in what seems to be the main event: critiquing the Russian government at the expense of virtually all else. While we are certainly not here to defend the Russian government or its laws, we are here to keep an eye on the media. The Sochi Olympics coverage, however, suggests the flame of consistent and equitable reporting has been nearly extinguished.

Much of the Olympic coverage so far, for example, has been dominated by journalists who appear borderline-obsessed with addressing the question of LGBTQ rights in Russia, condemning Russia at virtually every turn. While the question of LGBTQ rights is undoubtedly an important one, we question why media organizations suddenly appear intent on focusing on human rights issues now that Russia is hosting the Olympics. We do not recall similar treatment of the U.S. government the last time it hosted an international sporting event. Can you recall the mainstream media ever criticizing the U.S. government for human rights abuses during the Olympics? We can’t. Although the Obama Administration has launched a record number of drone strikes (eight times more than his predecessor) and the U.S. previously engaged in the practice of “extraordinary rendition”—kidnapping someone from country X and then sending them to country Y for “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture)—we cannot recall a single instance of the media mentioning those human rights issues during international sporting events. Yet the impression one gets from media reports is that LGBTQ issues in Russia are (a) relevant to the Olympics and/or (b) the most important human rights issue of our time.

Again, there’s no question that LGBTQ rights are important and that the FEW believes all individuals should be treated equally and equitably. But instead of focusing on the status of various Russian laws that have little to do with the Olympics, we’d rather ask why media organizations have penned so many articles on human right violations committed by other governments but comparatively few articles for those those committed by their own. If media organizations are to be cantankerous and obstinate, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case, why do they maintain relative silence when it comes to the alleged human rights violations of the U.S. government? In the lead-up to these Olympics, not a day went by without a new story about LGBTQ rights in Russia. The establishment media organizations have never done such consistent reporting on alleged human rights violations when the United States hosts an international sporting event. The stark contrast in reporting strikes us as both hypocritical and unhelpful.

The hypocrisy is evident in articles like this from The Verge, entitled “Hackers aren’t the Problem at Sochi, Surveillance is.” Right—surveillance is a problem in Sochi. Russell Brandom says in his article that what’s happening in Sochi is “one of the most intensive short-term campaigns of digital surveillance the 21st century has ever seen.” Again, we’re not here to defend Russian practices by any means, but The Verge appears to be writing about an alternate reality. The National Security Agency (NSA) has instituted surveillance programs for those who play Angry Birds and World of Warcraft, not to mention surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM that, by design, are aimed to collect “virtually everything a user does on the internet.” In short, the notion that Russia—not the NSA—is engaged in “one of the most intensive” surveillance operations is nonsensical in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

Media coverage of the Sochi Olympics has also been unhelpful. First, by focusing on the LGBTQ issue in Russia during these Olympics but downplaying U.S. human rights issues (Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, mass surveillance, etc.) during other sporting events, media organizations implicitly suggest that the latter issues are unimportant. At the very least, their reporting conveys to the reader that LGBTQ issues in Russia are far more important than any of the other issues mentioned above. Second, the media’s reporting is unhelpful to those who are actually participating in the Olympics: the athletes themselves. Although they have trained for years and are regarded as the best in their field, the media has so far preferred to focus on unrelated political issues in Russia. The athletes—and the victims of U.S. human rights abuses worldwide—deserve better.

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