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.
This month, when the final batch of event tickets was released to the public, drawing unruly crowds of tens of thousands of people to the sales offices, police blocked reporters, including Maureen Fan of The Washington Post, from approaching the scene. The official English-language China Daily carried a mystifying after-action story reporting that a photographer for the South China Morning Post had apologized after “breaking through a barricade … and kicking an officer in the groin.”
The China Daily appears to be a different sort of victim of the Olympic reporting climate. In uneventful times, the paper has a quirky, amusingly gothic news sensibility. But under the pressure of the impending Games, it has taken to running headlines such as “Games to Be a Great Success: Survey” or “President Boosts Athletes’ Morale.”
Contemplating a possibly unruly foreign reporting corps, the Chinese so far have embraced control as a bulwark against anarchy. When Korean television filmed a dress rehearsal for the secrecy-shrouded opening ceremony and put it on the Web, the response was stern: The final rehearsal on Aug. 6 would be closed to the press.
“The Koreans spoiled the party for everybody,” Mr. Ruffolo said.
It’s a strange party anyway. Every major, city-occupying news event involves caste and class distinctions that are specific to that city, that event, that year.
In Beijing, you see it in the upscale Taiwanese dumpling house: the pack—six or eight beefy, flushed white men and one beefy black woman—with their yellow Olympic media credentials around their necks.
That the dumpling house is not an Olympic venue is beside the point.
They are here.
Who are you? Domestic or international? Resident bureau correspondent or visitor? News or sports? Print or broadcast? Rights-holding broadcast or non-rights-holder?
Tag wearer or tag shedder? The social overtones are much the same as they are for lift tickets once you’ve departed the slopes. But there is another incentive for reporters to wear the yellow tags outside the sealed Olympic zone—free public transit, free admission to various sites—just as there is incentive for the Chinese to provide incentive for reporters to keep wearing their identifying yellow badges around town.
The yellow badges also demonstrate that you do not have the blue badge. Yellow badges are for the Main Press Center, on the west side of the Olympic Green, a little bit north of the National Aquatics Center and the National Indoor Arena and the Digital Beijing building.
Blue badges are for the Beijing International Media Center, a press center whose main drawback is that it is not, strictly speaking, at the Olympics.
The BIMC is for the Olympic underclass, the journalists and outlets who missed or didn’t qualify for the Main Press Center deadline back in 2006—the quasi-independents, the recently established China desks, the bureau foot soldiers, the just plain disorganized, the supernumerary Chinese media. On the northern arm of Beijing’s central axis, the Olympic Green starts just outside the Fourth Ring Road; the BIMC is out of view, inside the Third Ring. There are people with yellow tags who don’t even know the blue tags exist.
In late July, before the full security lockdown of the Olympic zone, it was still possible—by arguing long enough—for someone registered with the BIMC to get a day pass into the Main Press Center for press briefings. The instructions were to bring a passport and keep the blue tag out of sight. Out on the sidewalk, a staffer handed off a press-conference schedule with a handwritten note in Chinese at the top. The guards yielded at the sight of it.
Inside the gates, paradise is in some ways less plush than purgatory.
The BIMC is in a cushily renovated hotel, with an exterior of bright white paint and blue-tinged frosted glass, with letters and numerals in the world’s various scripts floating on the glass panels. The elevators are so lavishly mirrored, inside and out, that it’s hard to tell when the doors have opened. Outside the biggest press conference hall, a uniformed employee tends a silver dispenser of ice water with lemon in it.
The front end of the MPC, on the other hand, was built to serve as a convention center after the Games: broad concrete hallways, with exposed pipes and ductwork in a black-painted ceiling. Then, right before the largest of the press-conference halls—Hall No. 1, the “Plum Blossom” hall—you cross over into the part of the building that will be the five-star InterContinental Beijing Beichen Hotel after the games. There, off to the right, is a soaring lobby with multistory wall art, and polished surfaces everywhere (except underfoot, where gray industrial carpet awaits a monthlong trampling). The seats in the Plum Blossom hall are red and there are some 800 of them.
“We have 4,000 people working in the building today,” Jeff Ruffolo said on Aug. 5, on a local phone call from the MPC. Counting the broadcast people in their own center, he said, the total was probably more like 10,000.
Mr. Ruffolo, a former Olympic sportscaster, holds the title of senior expert with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee—a position that, by his own account, he badgered the committee into creating for him.
All through the run-up to the Games, his has been the white face that foreign reporters see as they try to get their bearings at the Olympic news briefings. When the Olympic media center split in July into the MPC and the BIMC, Mr. Ruffolo went to the MPC. He had, he said, never been so busy in his life.
“Today, tomorrow are the crunch days,” he said. “We get people that we’ve never seen ever coming to the press conferences and the like by the hundreds.”
Before they get to the MPC press-conference hall, non-Chinese-speaking reporters are asked—to their visible alarm, if it’s their first time—to surrender their yellow credentials as a deposit on a wireless translation receiver and earpiece. The receiver does something for the language barrier, but not everything: In a press conference about forestry, an official answered a question about what trees Beijing had planted by offering a list of tree varieties in Chinese—which came over the earpiece in English reduced to “poplar and other kinds of trees.” The online transcript in Chinese left out the list altogether.
The gesture of providing an answer had been enough.
Another gesture: At the BIMC, in a back hallway of the reception tent, there is a ticketing office. Because the blue credential doesn’t grant access to venues, the idea is to allow BIMC registrants to buy tickets to see events with the general public. Or rather—as it emerged when the office finally opened, after three weeks of delays—to allow each reporter to buy one ticket, for one event, in the course of the whole Olympics. (Three days into the sales, a text message went out saying that the reporters could buy more, three days before an event, if there were leftovers.)
Sometimes, news does emerge at the BIMC. It was there, not at the MPC, that traffic and environmental officials first met the press to discuss the fact that five days after a driving ban on half the city’s private cars, the roads were still jammed and the air was full of smog.
But it was at the MPC that a security briefing included official acknowledgement that the city would be setting up official protest zones in three parks during the Olympics. Reporters huddled up afterward to figure out where the third park, World Park, which nobody had heard of, was located—halfway out to Hebei Province, it turned out. The other two parks weren’t bad, though.
It was the BIMC at which reporters were loaded onto buses for what proved to be a six-hour tour of Olympic food-production facilities. It began with a briefing at the municipal agricultural bureau, in a too-small room. Food-safety briefings are among the worst, because the officials are politically obligated to begin each one by explaining at length that testing has demonstrated that the entire ordinary food supply of Beijing is clean and untainted—after which they explain how a wholly separate food-supply system has been set up to protect athletes from tainted food.
Then the buses set out for the countryside. Beijing has set up reserved lanes on major roads for Olympic vehicles so that they can avoid traffic jams, but the BIMC buses couldn’t drive on them. After nearly two hours on the road, the reporters were delivered to an organic farm in which rows of greenhouses were growing green peppers. Peppers after peppers after peppers after peppers, clear down the row, almost to the end, where a few greenhouses were full of basil. Camera crews swarmed through the doorway to surround a woman in a straw hat, stooped over, snipping basil with scissors. The athletes will have fresh basil.
And China will be covered, whether China or the reporters enjoy it or not. America is pledged to the ideal of a free press, even if Americans don’t always approve of the press itself. The Chinese have not even been taught to love the press in the abstract. China is not even good at pandering to the media—as in its failure to install an uncensored Internet connection at the MPC. For many reporters and editors, their first exposure to the Beijing of 2008 was through registering with an intransigent, nitpicking bureaucracy.
AT A MUCH higher altitude, that bureaucracy has shown itself in the delicate negotiations with NBC, which will broadcast an unprecedented 2,900 hours out of 3,600 possible hours live to American televisions from official Olympic venues.
For 17 days beginning on Aug. 8, NBC’s on-air talent will be taping stand-ups against a narrative backdrop of dirty air, political unrest and press censorship. But the sports—at least, a lot of them, and for most American audiences—will be broadcast live.
As a sporting event, it will be extraordinary. Though there is a Summer Olympics every four years, this year’s edition promises unique drama: China has resolved to mark its turn as host nation by displacing the United States at the top of the gold medal table, and there is every reason to believe they’ll do it.
From the standpoint of great international rivalries, it’s reminiscent of America vs. the Soviet bloc: the superpowers, fighting a proxy battle with javelins and two-man sculls across a massive political and cultural divide.
But these games are also going to provide the American media an opportunity—or an obligation, depending on the business prerogatives of the outlet—to say serious things about serious topics, even at risk of running afoul a host nation with a low level of tolerance for hostile press.
“We pushed hard to send a good number of people to the games,” said New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly, “and it’s about so much more than the sports here.”
“Beijing is treating the Olympics as a showcase of a world power,” Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “We’re treating it as a showcase for great journalism.”
These Beijing Olympic Games present the sort of dilemma that assignment editors and correspondents wait their whole lives to confront. Eleven thousand athletes; an opening ceremony with 15,000 performers. The new world superpower onstage, open as never before to Western media; 20,000-plus credentialed reporters (according to official reports in China) telling the story.
A massive feat of organization for the Chinese government, for the International Olympic Committee—and for the news agencies that have come to China to cover the Games.
“One day, they’ll e-mail us and ask for certain information, and the next day, after we raised a question as to why, then it changes,” said Mr. Jolly, the Times sports editor. “This is mostly silly stuff—like requests for photos for credentials because there was a blue background instead of a white background. That literally happened. Actually to a few different people. Those sorts of things happened.”
“There’s a combination of the language difficulties and the time difference and the fact that we’re dealing with government that’s not used to press freedoms,” he said.
But on the other hand, there is China’s calculation that certain compromises with Western sensibilities about the media will be necessary if they’re going to get what they need out of these Olympics. It’s a development Joe Kahn, The Times’ deputy foreign editor who won a Pulitzer Prize with Jim Yardley for his coverage of the country, has been watching closely.
“Journalists will write about the beauty of the architecture in Beijing—we’ve had some of that. Obviously, there will be the other side—I don’t think they’re expecting positive coverage. There are enough reporters in Beijing that they will get a mix and on the whole, and China has made the calculation that generally means more good than bad.”
Judging from Mr. Ebersol’s account of his network’s coverage, it’s working.
“China’s new to the world in terms of openness,” he said. “It’s really a whole new thing for them.”
He described a “constant dialogue” between his network and the Chinese government about coverage of the Olympics. (That dialogue is probably helped along by the fact that NBC’s corporate parent, General Electric, is a sponsor of the Olympics, for which it had to pay $900 million for its exclusive American broadcast.)
“We clearly will be able to come out of Tiananmen Square for the Games. I understand with the amount of events, there’s going to be a runaround [concerning] Tiananmen Square, why it’s not going to be available 24 hours a day. The six or seven hours that they’re starting off with right now, it’s a starting point. Would we like more on a whole lot of different levels? Of course we would, but we continue to dialogue with them.”
But which way will that “dialogue” move the counter? On Aug. 5, three days before the Olympics are to start, sports columnist Harvey Araton, who is covering his tenth Olympics, wrote a post on The Times’ Olympics blog.
On his press bus, an official informed his group that a new policy was in place for reporters who wished to conduct interviews on Tiananmen Square.
“Something about a day’s advance notice, an application, a sanctioning office with a fax machine,” he wrote. “Knowing that reporters from the New York Times staff had already visited the Square the last two days and had encountered little difficulty in getting people to talk, I asked how new the policy was: Brand new or created-specifically-for-our-group new.”
The official’s answer: “Two days, I think.”
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