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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Hook, Line, and Sinker: NBC Swallows Opening Ceremonies Propaganda

August 13, 2008

Katherine Goldstein
August 11, 2008

First off, I want to say that from an artistic, creative standpoint
the Opening Ceremonies exceeded my expectations. Director Zhang Yimou
deserves heaping praise for the 2008 drummers, the synchronized,
dancing printing blocks, the human calligraphy on the LCD screen, and
lighting of the Olympic flame.

But despite the beauty of the spectacle, the conscious decision to
create a narrative that rewrites both Chinese history and reality and
presents a sugar-sweet sunshine portrait to the world is alarming —
but the fact that the NBC commentators unquestioningly went along
with it is downright appalling. Here are two glaring examples.

The first major red flag that this was going to be a propaganda
exercise of massive portions was when the government paraded a group
of Han Chinese children through the Bird's Nest dressed in the garb
of the nation's 54 minority groups — as a effort to "celebrate" the
diversity of China. How inclusive! Except for the fact that the
government either exoticizes these groups for tourist purposes while
they remain poor, second-class citizens, or create conscious programs
to aggressively assimilate these groups out of existence,
particularly in politically hostile regions like Tibet and Xinjiang.
An equivalent in America would be if the government got a group of
white kids from Manhattan together and dressed them up as members of
Native American tribes and paraded them around as example of how
respectful we are towards the "native peoples."

Any comment from the commentators? Nope. Is this ignorance or
intentional? And which is worse?

But the most outrageous double omission came as the ceremonies moved
to "modern Chinese history." I was very curious to see how they were
going to pull this off. I debated with my family how they were going
to mention Mao. Mao is by far most famous, influential and important
figure in modern Chinese history, and his picture still hangs
prominently in Tiananmen Square. Whenever I'd ask people their
opinions of him in my travels in China, they would reply, "he was a
great man who made some mistakes." OK! So as NBC cuts back in
hurriedly from commercial, the China "expert" Josh Cooper Ramo
informs us that the program has now reached 1978, as China opens
itself up to the world. Um. Wait one second. Did we miss 1949 to 1978
during the commercial break? I don't think so. It was an
understandably calculated move for Zhang to make no reference to Mao
— why spoil the debutante ball with references to a leader who was
responsible for tens of millions of deaths? Fine, I get they don't
want to retell the stories of things like the Great Leap Forward, or
the Cultural Revolution, where for ten years teenagers wreaked havoc,
society shut down and millions were sent to work in the countryside.
Leaving out these historical realties when telling this history of
modern China is certainly a deliberate PR move, but what is
unforgivable is that no one, not even Ramo the China "expert," said a
damn thing about it. He made one fleeting reference to a costume
change where Zhang had decided against dark suits that looked
Mao-like, but that was it.

Throughout the segment on ancient Chinese history, Ramo had no
trouble explaining the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist references. He
elaborated that China wanted the performance to be didactic in
teaching the world about the rich cultural traditions and "replacing
old images of China with new ones." Of course they do. That is what
propaganda is. Your job, Mr. Ramo, is to provide accurate,
informative commentary to explain and counteract this. However, to
let China's abridged version of history slide under the radar without
any comment is troubling because it means one of the following things.

* Ramo is an idiot.
* He, Matt Lauer, and Bob Costas didn't want to say anything remotely
negative about the opening ceremonies.

Are they self-censoring? With China detaining the White House press
plane, police surveillance everywhere and blocked internet sites,
were they worried that these kinds of criticisms of the event while
it was airing would provoke ire from the government? Were they
actively told that they shouldn't mention this omission of Mao and
tow the party line on the "inclusion" of minorities? Or were their
comments edited out? Whatever the answer is, it doesn't say anything
good about NBC's ability to provide fair coverage of what is far more
than a sporting event. Everyone knows this is a geo-political extravaganza.

My colleague David Flumenbaum has pointed out that we've been totally
duped by promises that there will be a free press covering the games,
and it's unacceptable for NBC to be, or appear to be, in the
Communist Party's pocket. This is about more than routine criticism
about commentators being trite. There is a lot more at stake right
now, and we must vigilantly demand that Olympic coverage is never compromised.
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