Frank Rich on the National Circus: NBC Fiddles As Kiev Burns

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KIEV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 19: Anti-government protesters clash with police on Independence Square in Kiev on February 19, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. At least 26 people have been killed and hundreds injured as violence once again flared between police and anti-government protesters, after several weeks of calm. The anti-government protesters are calling for the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych over corruption and an abandoned trade agreement with the European Union. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
Photo: Alexander Koerner/2014 Alexander Koerner

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: troubling questions about the Sochi Games and a look at the latest legislative move by opponents of gay marriage.

The Olympics have a history of turning a blind eye toward politics, with notorious instances like the Nazi-hosted 1936 Berlin Games and the 1968 Mexico City Games staged amid global protests and the bloody Tlateloco Massacre. This week, the streets of Kiev exploded as Ukraine's Putin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych cracked down on his country's anti-government, pro-Western protestors (presumably with the assent of Putin) setting off days of bloodshed. Did the IOC make a grave mistake in handing these games to Russia? And what, if any, should be the response of the IOC, athletes, and the Olympics media to this conflict? 

There’s no way to know now, but history could well end up judging the Sochi Games as harshly as it does the notorious Berlin Games. Already Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and anti-Putin dissident, is making the analogy. He notes that “Hitler in 1936 was seen as a thoroughly respectable and legitimate politician” and argues that the current IOC chairman, Thomas Bach, a German, should “have learned something from history.”  If Putin’s authoritarian agenda of harsh and violent repression keeps metastasizing in Russia, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere — a likely prospect once the Games are over and he is liberated from acting within its spotlight — Sochi may be remembered, as the Berlin Games are, as a giant propaganda gift bestowed on him by dupes and quislings.

The athletes are mere pawns in the chess game between Russia and the West. They should do what their individual consciences dictate. The Ukraine’s 43 competing athletes have shown remarkable bravery in that regard, asking to wear black armbands to symbolize the “deep pain” and the “sorrow and sympathy” they feel over the loss of their fellow countrymen. That the IOC has shut down this mild, earnest protest is shameful. At least the committee has not yet tried to silence the figure skater-turned-commentator Johnny Weir, who is now wearing his hair in “a traditional Ukrainian braid” to show solidarity with the Ukraine protestors.

Weir is a bright spot at NBC. But there’s a noxious fiddling-while-Kiev-burns surreality to the network’s traditional upbeat Olympics packaging when people are being slaughtered in the streets some 600 miles away from Sochi and Putin continues to brutalize dissenters of all kinds in Russia itself. You have to wonder if future generations will judge the treacly, gung-ho Sochi coverage in years hence much as they look back now on Leni Riefenstahl’s feel-good propaganda film from the Berlin Games, Olympia — as technically impressive but morally obtuse. On Wednesday, the Sochi-branded edition of the NBC Nightly News didn’t even lead with the Kiev standoff but instead chose to go with a news break about a generic Department of Homeland Security warning about potential shoe bombers — a story deemed so inconsequential by the Times and Wall Street Journal the following morning that you had to search the back pages of their print editions to find brief items mentioning it. You have to wonder what corporate interests are at play in NBC’s coverage of Russia and Ukraine as it strides to protect its huge investment in the Games and preserve a rare Today ratings victory over ABC’s Good Morning America. This question is particularly worth examining now, given the bid of the network’s parent company, Comcast, to buy Time Warner Cable. If this deal passes regulatory scrutiny, it will give Comcast still more say over what information Americans receive, not just from NBC but from any source that reaches households by broadband.

As the courts increasingly rule in favor of same-sex marriage rights, conservative state lawmakers are pushing bills to allow businesses, individuals, and, in some cases, government employees to deny services to gay couples on religious grounds. Earlier this week, as BuzzFeed reported, four of these bills — in Kansas, South Dakota, Idaho, and Tennessee — were abruptly scuttled, and one — in Arizona — advanced. Do these religious exemption bills have a chance of arresting the rapid progress of the gay rights movement? Or do this week's events expose them as dead on arrival? 

These bills are the last desperate efforts by the religious right to stop the tide of history. It’s ludicrous to argue (as one Kansas legislator put it) that people are being “persecuted for their religious beliefs” by, say, being required by law to rent a hotel ballroom to a same-sex wedding. This is just a new version of the last-ditch states’ rights arguments invoked to justify turning away black people from lunch counters during the civil rights movement. That even conservative states are now dropping these potential laws in response to public outcry is heartening: A Republican state senator in South Dakota, Mark Kirkeby, was moved to call his state’s scuttled bill “mean, nasty, hateful, vindictive.” There’s never been any moral (or, for that matter, religious) grounds for denying gays their full constitutional rights; now there’s no political advantage either. As Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern, told the Times in reaction to the string of federal judges in Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia who recently struck down state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, “It is becoming increasingly clear to judges that if they rule against same-sex marriage, their grandchildren will regard them as bigots.” Though it’s happening at a faster speed than they might wish, the justices of the Supreme Court will soon be at this crossroads.

The national Republican party, however, remains an outlier. It doesn’t know what the hell to do. Its base still rejects same-sex marriage yet the party establishment (and its fat-cat funders the Koch Brothers included) know full well that demonizing gay marriage is a barrier that keeps young voters from even considering the party’s stands on other issues. So the GOP seems to be hoping that if it holds its breath long enough somehow this historic wave will just go away. At Fox News, the party’s media surrogate, the less said about anything remotely gay, whether in Russia or at home, the better. Though a serious gay Republican candidate for Congress in San Diego, Carl DeMaio, recently made American political history by becoming the first such candidate in either party to run an ad showing a gay politician holding hands with his partner and waving a rainbow flag at a gay-pride parade, Fox has been conspicuously silent. It’s not deploring this development or covering it — the journalistic equivalent, I guess, of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But events are moving so fast that it’s hard to imagine that the GOP can keep hiding in this closet indefinitely.