As NBC’s telecast of the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing got underway on Friday, Savannah Guthrie wasted little time calling out the elephant in the room. “Some have said that there’s a cloud over these Olympics, that China has come under fire globally because of policies and practices,” Guthrie said from NBC’s studio in the U.S., speaking to the network’s on-the-ground team of Mike Tirico, Bloomberg’s Andy Browne, and Yale professor Jing Tsu. “In fact, the U.S. has issued a diplomatic boycott of these Games, sending no officials here because of human rights—in particular, China’s treatment of the minority Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region. Andy, the U.S. has come right out and called it genocide.”
Genocide. There’s no mistaking the term, and the fact that Guthrie used it within 15 minutes of the start of the telecast was a sign that NBC does not plan to completely sidestep the significant human rights issues underlying these Beijing Games. Since at least 2017, according to the United States and many other Western observers, the Chinese government has engaged in a systematic campaign of repression against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “They allege a host of human rights abuses: forced labor, coercive birth control practices, indoctrination, and that all this adds up to a form of cultural genocide,” said Browne. He, Guthrie, and the rest of the NBC team deserve credit and recognition for getting straight to the point.
Having done so, the network went on to immediately hedge that point. “It has to be said that the Chinese government emphatically denies all of this. They say that accusations of genocide are the lie of the century,” said Browne. While this observation is correct—the Chinese government does say this—it also revealed a lot about the fundamental fragility of NBC’s position at these incredibly problematic Olympics.
There is almost no way that NBC will get the Beijing Olympics “right,” because the network is working from competing imperatives. As a news network, NBC is obliged to cover the human rights situation in China, and to not avoid the story just because it might complicate its coverage of the Olympics. Unfortunately for NBC, the story of the Uyghur genocide certainly does complicate its coverage of the Olympics, insofar as it prompts people of conscience to ask why the Olympics are happening at all in a nation that is currently pursuing such repressive policies.
NBC very much needs its viewers to not be so repelled by the very premise of the question that they decide not to watch the Winter Games. NBC paid billions of dollars for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S., and it assuredly does not want to sabotage its own ratings by unequivocally trumpeting the host nation’s manifold human rights abuses at the start of every broadcast. The replacement-level Olympics viewers on whose attention the network is counting this month just want to watch figure skating; they don’t necessarily want to be made to feel like they are making a morally questionable choice by doing so.
NBC is also operating within China at the moment, and China under Xi Jinping is not particularly friendly to the free press. (A recent report detailed the government’s increasingly repressive tactics of intimidation and assault of journalists.) Though NBC’s status as perhaps the most prominent global broadcast network in attendance at the Games does allow it to report with some measure of impunity, the network also quite literally cannot afford to aggravate its host to the point where China might retaliate by impeding its access.
It’s a no-win situation for NBC, and the question executives have surely been asking themselves is this: What is the least worst way for the network to lose? Its early coverage of the opening ceremony might offer a clue: My gut tells me that NBC will cleave to objectivity and treat China’s human rights issues as a story that has two sides. While the network won’t evade the story, it will also take care to hedge whenever it is mentioned. It will play the story straight down the middle and take care to refrain from taking a stance either way.
There would be several problems with this choice, if NBC were to make it. Practically every other credible source of information about what’s happening in Xinjiang corroborates the existence of ongoing human rights abuses there, including testimony from Uyghurs who have escaped such oppression or who are trying to save their family members who are still experiencing it. If, for reasons of realpolitik, NBC decides to treat Xinjiang as a “he said/she said” situation—a story with two sides worthy of equal acknowledgement and understanding—then its coverage would cease to be journalistic and would instead become collaborative with China. Rather than illuminating or clarifying the situation by presenting multiple “sides,” it would do the work of Xi’s government by muddling the plain reality, and treating the Party’s solo spin—its propaganda—about its atrocities in Xinjiang as having equal weight as all other evidence.
While speaking plainly about what credible evidence indicates China is doing to the Uyghurs might endanger NBC’s finances and the safety of its reporters, not speaking plainly about what’s happening would serve the interest of Xi above all others—certainly above the interest of the viewers who want to understand the context of what they’re watching. A journalistic philosophy of studied neutrality falls short when faced with a bad-faith actor that exploits that neutrality, that treats it as a license to flaunt its misdeeds to the world.
The repression of the Uyghurs—like the Beijing Olympics and most other political choices made in China—is the handiwork of the nation’s autocratic leader, Xi Jinping, a man who also believes in getting straight to the point. Xi’s point, as far as I understand it, is that the Uyghur genocide isn’t a genocide at all, that China has done nothing to be ashamed of, and that anyone who thinks differently can go suck eggs. China can take this provocative stance with relative impunity because of its global economic status. Most of the rest of the world is financially beholden to China in one way or another, which emboldens Xi and the Party to say and do basically whatever they want without much fear of meaningful diplomatic reprisal.
“China wants to send a message about itself in this opening ceremony,” Guthrie said early in Friday’s broadcast, and by the time the ceremony was over, it was clear that that message was largely a taunt. At every Olympics, the opening ceremony concludes with a succession of torchbearers jogging into the stadium to light a flame that will burn for the duration of the Games. “The identity of the final torchbearer is kept secret until the last moment. It is often a personality from the sports world or a young person symbolising hope for the future,” as a publication from the Olympic Museum put it. China chose two final torchbearers: Nordic combined skier Zhao Jiawen, and Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur who is competing for China this year in cross-country skiing.
It was a jaw-dropping moment, as if Germany had chosen a Dachau prisoner to light the cauldron at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Tirico and Guthrie were clearly taken aback by China’s choice of final torchbearer. “Of course, those are the people from the region in northwest China that has … attracted so much attention in the conversation of human rights, and that ethnic minority … comments from the United States government, among others, of genocide being committed against the Uyghurs. So a very significant moment here,” said Tirico, fumbling for words.
“Mike, this moment, uh, is quite provocative,” Guthrie said to Tirico. “It’s a statement from the Chinese president Xi Jinping to choose an athlete from the Uyghur minority. It is an in-your-face response to those Western nations, including the U.S., who have called this Chinese treatment of that group genocide, and diplomatically boycotted these Games. There will be much discussion about this choice.”
It is NBC’s job to lead this discussion. The Olympics cannot and will not end repression in China, but they can serve as a sort of temporary wedge. The next two weeks will mark perhaps the first time in Xi’s chairmanship that he will not be able to entirely constrain the independent press within China. Over the next two weeks, NBC will have an opportunity to call out what it sees for what it is; to gamble that Xi will not want to invite an international incident by expelling its broadcasters or restricting its access in retaliation for honest reporting; to rise to Xi’s challenge and stand up for its values as a news organization in the face of a crystal-clear provocation. It’s a risk, for sure, but it’s one that’s well worth taking.