Bird’s Nest Soup

At lunchtime on July 29, the New York Times masthead invited a group of reporters and editors up to a conference room in the paper’s executive hall on the 16th floor to eat roast beef and turkey sandwiches and talk about the paper’s massive investment in the Olympic Games.

How, they wanted to know, could The Times best use the 32 credentialed reporters and editors that would cover the Olympics in China?

George Vecsey, the paper’s longtime sports columnist, answered by not talking about sports at all.

He told the group the real story in Beijing over the coming three weeks was not about athletes, but about China, its geopolitical aspirations and how they were staked on the games.

Jill Abramson, the paper’s managing editor, told him he was “exactly right.”

“If I had any fear—and I really don’t with the totality of the coverage—it is we would miss the big story,” Ms. Abramson said afterward in a phone interview.

At another meeting in Beverly Hills two weeks earlier, Dick Ebersol, the chair of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, was addressing a group of television critics to brief them on NBC’s massive Olympics presence.

“Our primary aim is, as the sole rights holder in the United States, we’re the only way that you can see the major events of the Games,” he told a reporter who asked whether they planned to cover some of the complex political, social and environmental issues surrounding the Games. “So we’re not going to cavalierly blow out events to show—blow out sporting events to show news, but if it’s really news, we’re going to cover it.”

Unlike at The Times, an important division is made here: “Our” job in sports is sports; “their” job in news is news. So who’s got the credentials?

“In the major venues, we have our own cameras. So if something develops during the opening ceremony, we have our own cameras, and we also have both news and sports people ready to comment on that.”

But for news: “They’re sending the all-stars,” he said. Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, the Today crew, Richard Engel—even a Weather Channel guy! And so, the Olympics are a sports event; and China is a news story. End of story.

 

OF COURSE, at the time of each of these meetings, both Ms. Abramson and Mr. Ebersol already had a significant contingent of reporters on the ground in China. And before the games have even begun, the relationship between China and the Western press has become a story.

China’s short-tempered and nationalistic online community sparked death threats this past spring against outlets whose coverage of the Lhasa riots was deemed slanted toward the Tibetans. CNN doubled its blacklist status when commentator Jack Cafferty called the Chinese “thugs and goons”—meaning the regime, he said afterward, too late to mollify the public.

Craig Simons, the Asia bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, said that a cab driver this month had asked him if he worked for CNN. Mr. Simons said he did not. The cabbie declared that he would have refused to carry him if he had. “We were on Second Ring Road, in heavy traffic, and he said he’d pull over right there and drop me on the shoulder,” Mr. Simons wrote in an e-mail.

Under these conditions, status and etiquette begin to get slippery.

When President Hu Jintao held a press conference with selected foreign journalists on Aug. 1, it was not clear whether getting an invitation to attend had been a mark of honor or disrepute. The New York Times, one of the non-invited papers, noted that in the state press, “a large photo showed a smiling Mr. Hu shaking hands with foreign journalists, who had been asked to form a receiving line.”

Unwritten: “… and who had complied.”

This is a particular problem for the rights holders. The ethical questions about working with the Chinese are complicated by a philosophical dimension: China is repressive toward journalists, and it is open-handed toward commerce. So which proposition is the truth about freedom in China? And which side are you on?

If journalism is the primary good, the Chinese have a lot to answer for. The Olympic promises of greater access are easily breached. In July, police stepped in to stop a live broadcast from the Great Wall on Germany’s ZDF TV network, ZDF’s East Asia correspondent, Johannes Hano, said. Mr. Hano’s crew had spent months requesting and receiving the necessary permissions, he said. But in the middle of an interview with David Spindler—the Great Wall expert profiled by Peter Hessler in the New Yorker—German morning-show audiences saw police stick their hands over the camera lens.

“They told us, in the U.S. there’s no Great Wall, so there couldn’t be a U.S. Great Wall expert,” Mr. Hano said.

After a frantic telephone appeal to the Foreign Ministry, the Germans were allowed to do the rest of their live segments for the morning program. “We just wanted to show how beautiful China could be,” Mr. Hano said.