A turbulent Winter Olympics for the press 

Two weeks ago, with the Winter Olympics having just gotten underway in Beijing, L’Equipe, a French sports daily, published an interview with Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player who disappeared from public view for weeks late last year after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault in a social-media post that was swiftly censored. The episode sparked widespread international concern. Peng told L’Equipe that she was grateful for that, but that it had derived from a “huge misunderstanding”; she never accused anyone of sexual assault, she said, and she had never disappeared. “Emotions, sport, and politics are three clearly separate things,” she added, and they should not be mixed up. L’Equipe splashed the interview on its front page, with the headline “WE MET PENG SHUAI” next to a photo that showed Peng wearing a Chinese Olympic jacket and smiling as she looked out the window of a Beijing hotel.

The hotel in question was a base for the Chinese Olympic Committee—and, while L’Equipe boasted that its interview was the first Peng had given to “independent international media” since her disappearance, it took place under circumstances of tight state control. Chinese officials required that the paper submit its questions in advance and insisted that Peng answer in Chinese, via a translator who was himself a senior official; they also insisted that L’Equipe run the interview in Q&A format. (L’Equipe said that it ended up being able to ask other questions that it hadn’t submitted in advance and that it corroborated the translation independently.) The paper acknowledged that it never expected Peng to be candid under such conditions; the goal, Jérôme Cazadieu, the editorial director, said, was to do what the eventual headline suggested—meet Peng Shuai, so that journalists might assess her physical and emotional state, parse her tone, and “tell her that the world has mobilized for her and not forgotten her.” Critics countered that L’Equipe had allowed Chinese officials to use its credibility to launder an exculpatory narrative. Stephen McDonell, the BBC’s China correspondent, wrote that the paper had been “as much involved in a propaganda exercise as in an ‘interview.’”

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The International Olympic Committee—which has itself been criticized for lending credence to “staged” Peng appearances—said that Peng also met at the Games with Thomas Bach, the IOC’s president. At a press conference, Mark Adams, an IOC spokesperson, referred members of the media to the L’Equipe interview when one asked him whether the IOC had discussed any possible investigation of Peng’s initial allegation of sexual assault. Nor would Adams say whether the IOC believes that Peng is free to speak her mind. “We are a sporting organization, and our job is to remain in contact with her and, as we’ve explained in the past, to carry out personal and quiet diplomacy, to keep in touch with her, as we’ve done,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s for us to be able to judge, in one way, just as it’s not for you to judge either.”

As Andrew Keh has written for the New York Times, the daily Olympic pressers were often a microcosm of a clash of media ecosystems visible at the Games: non-Chinese outlets would ask “often indelicate questions about what is awry,” including Peng’s situation, while Chinese state media would ask about “all that is well,” like the roast duck in the Olympic village. Foreign reporters faced strict controls on their movement, ostensibly for COVID reasons, with China imposing a “closed loop” system that was successful in constraining the spread of the virus but also had the effect of keeping international media from pursuing hard-hitting stories outside of the Olympic bubble. On the opening day, Sjoerd den Daas, a Dutch TV journalist, was manhandled by security while reporting live on air. The IOC called this an isolated incident.

Chinese state media, meanwhile, leaned into the official push to make the Games a propaganda coup, both at home and abroad. For a domestic audience, state outlets played down China’s sporting failures (as well as American successes) and even framed footage to make the setting look snowier than it was. Chinese propagandists sought to export such messaging internationally, too. They contracted a US firm to coordinate an influencer campaign seeding positive stories of the Games across Western social media. (“They were very clear and I was very clear that it’s about the Olympics and the Olympics only, nothing to do with politics,” the firm’s founder told the Times.) As the Times and ProPublica reported on Friday, they also appear to have weaponized thousands of Twitter bots and fake accounts to a similar end.

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As I wrote in this newsletter before the Games got underway, rights groups, including some focused on press freedom, had expressed concerns that China would use the Games to burnish its image while steamrolling criticism of its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere; NBC, the official broadcast partner of the Games in the US, came under particular political pressure not to enable such whitewashing, and responded by insisting that it would incorporate geopolitical issues into its Olympics coverage, even if sports would remain its focus. During the opening ceremony, the network addressed some of them and turned to experts, including Jing Tsu, a Yale academic, that it had tapped to offer context. That coverage, however, faced some criticism, with Slate’s Justin Peters suggesting that NBC had couched human rights as a story with two sides, and as the Games progressed, observers, including the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, noticed far fewer references to geopolitics on the network. NBC disputed Farhi’s characterization, citing, as an example, a report in which Mike Tirico brought up questions about Peng’s freedom to speak freely. Farhi argues that NBC “went no further” than that.

As the Games went on, they came to be dominated, in the wider news cycle, by a controversy tied firmly to the competition. After Olympic officials delayed the medal ceremony in a team figure-skating event that a Russian team had won, Inside the Games, a site that covers what its name suggests, reported that an anti-doping test taken by Kamila Valieva, the team’s fifteen-year-old prodigy, was at issue. Testing officials eventually confirmed that Valieva had tested positive for a banned angina drug in December; arbitrators ruled that Valieva could go on to compete in individual events, but the IOC said that if she placed in the top three, no medals would be awarded. In the end, this would not be an issue; Valieva stumbled and finished fourth. As she left the ice, she broke down and a coach berated her, as the world watched. At a presser, Bach was unusually scathing, describing the scene as “chilling.” Knowing “how the IOC likes to dodge, we came to this press conference ready to have to pry out information,” NPR’s Tom Goldman said. “It was notable that he spoke about her unprompted and in great detail.”

Scolding a coach may fit better with the IOC’s sports-first self-conception than weighing in firmly on behalf of Peng. But here, too, the media atmosphere grew political, and toxic. Duncan Mackay, the Inside the Games reporter who broke the Valieva story, was subject to abuse and death threats, including a warning to be careful about drinking tea, an unsubtle reference to past Kremlin poisoning attempts; British journalists at the Games also reported being confronted by their Russian counterparts, some of whom surrounded a reporter who had asked Valieva whether she took drugs and decried the question as inappropriate. According to Slate’s Yana Pashaeva, Russian state-media figures rushed to defend Valieva, including as a “Russian soldier, fighting for her country” in the face of a shady Western conspiracy. Others defended the coach who berated her, as did Vladimir Putin’s top spokesperson, who called “harshness” an essential ingredient of sporting success.

Chinese state media also downplayed the doping controversy and gave credence, when it was mentioned, to the idea that it might be a US conspiracy—a narrative, CNN’s Beijing bureau concluded, that would seem to reflect China’s growing allyship with Russia as the latter country threatens to invade Ukraine. That threat overshadowed the Games in the global news agenda, despite the conclusion, of many Western analysts and officials, that Putin would stall any invasion until after the Games to avoid doing just that. The closing ceremony was yesterday.

When Peng told L’Equipe that sports and politics should not be mixed, she was echoing a view often expressed by Chinese authorities. US news organizations have expressed a similar view in the past, albeit in a greatly different context. As I wrote beforehand, the idea that sports and politics can be meaningfully separated has always been a chimera, but China’s Games seemed set to pierce the illusion particularly sharply. Didn’t they just.

Below, more on the Games:

  • The ratings: The AP’s David Bauder and Joe Reedy write that the Games ended up being a “disaster” for NBC. “Viewers stayed away in alarming numbers, and NBC has to wonder whether it was extraordinarily bad luck or if the brand of a once-unifying event for tens of millions of people is permanently tainted,” Bauder and Reedy report. “Through Tuesday, an average of 12.2 million people watched the Olympics in prime-time on NBC, cable or the Peacock streaming service, down 42 percent from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The average for NBC alone was 10 million, a 47 percent drop, the Nielsen company said. That’s even with the average inflated by airing directly after the Super Bowl, a night that brought in 24 million viewers.” (Writing for Slate, Michael J. Socolow had a different take, noting widespread viewership on social-media platforms.)
  • Device dangers: Also writing for the AP, Kelvin Chan closes the loop on fears that Chinese authorities would use the Games as an opportunity to electronically surveil foreign visitors, including journalists. Ahead of time, news organizations and press-freedom groups warned reporters to take burner devices to Beijing and exercise digital caution; now that the Games are over, “concerns turn to what malware and other problems those who failed to heed the warnings might be carrying with them,” Chan writes. “Cybersecurity firm Mandiant said there’s been no sign of any ‘intrusion activity’ tied to the Olympics by the Chinese or other governments. But that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that nothing happened” since most such activity is detected a while after the fact.
  • The sports media: Another big Olympics story in US media was the performance of Mikaela Shiffrin, a US skiing star who surprisingly failed to win a medal. Shadia Nasralla writes, for Reuters, that Shiffrin ended the Games by delivering a “love letter” to the media, praising reporters for giving her a platform to “celebrate the good” in failure.  “There’s a lot of talk about this sort of battle between athletes and pressure and that the media falls on the pressure side of things,” Shiffrin said. “It doesn’t have to be that big of a battle because I’ve had so much support from you guys, from the media as well.”
  • Meanwhile, in Ukraine: Through the weekend, tensions continued to ratchet up between Russia and Western powers; President Biden warned that he believes Putin has already decided to invade Ukraine, though he also accepted the principle of a summit meeting with Putin, contingent on him not invading. Over the weekend, a press tour to examine shelling targets in eastern Ukraine itself came under mortar fire, with reporters present having to duck for cover. It’s not clear if the Russia-backed separatists who fired the shells knowingly targeted journalists. Times reporters who were present have more.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and the President of China Xi Jinping watch the closing ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)