Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: The Panda Paradox

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In this week’s issue of Time, I have written the only column of mine that Tuned In Jr. and Tuned In Jr. Jr. will probably ever want to read, because it has an illustration of Po from Kung Fu Panda on it. The paradox of the title? With the Olympic a week away, Hollywood is fascinated with China as an ancient culture (Kung Fu Panda, the new Mummy sequel, etc.), yet with rare exceptions (like 24), it acts as if China ceased to exist after 1949. There are some obvious reasons, such as wanting access to China’s growing middle class and its delicious, delicious money. And also:

In a way, Hollywood is reflecting our other institutions, which haven’t quite figured out China either. Is it a rival? A partner? A repressive authoritarian state? An engine of prosperity? A sinister force that tortured Jack Bauer? Or a delightful panda that likes to gobble dumplings? We know that China matters and will matter more. But we don’t exactly know how. So it floats undefined, a Middle Kingdom poised between fascination and fear. Kids collect Master Shifu Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s while parents worry that they may end up flipping burgers there if their jobs go to China. Meanwhile, Hollywood sublimates the anxiety in the form of dragons and marauding statuary.

Next week, though, Western media will be face-to-face with modern China, and its less-than-open ideas of civil liberties. In the past, Western companies—like the Internet companies that have acceeded to censorship in China—have enabled China’s restrictions on freedoms. (In the name of, take your pick, “helping China transition to greater openness” or making a pile of money because otherwise somebody else will.) Now Western media is on the receiving end of Chinese Internet restrictions—among other limitations on coverage that Beijing once promised not to impose.

The clear message of China’s Web blocking, and other restrictions on journalists’ access: you’ll get all the access you need—to cover the story we think you should be covering. In other words, cover the Games, and leave the politics out of it.

But by placing limits on journalists in an event that’s supposed to be about welcoming the world, China has brought politics into it, and the networks covering the Games owe it to their viewers to work this aspect of the story into their coverage of the Games themselves. The Olympics will be an exciting TV event for all the usual reasons—by which I mean, how goofy will the Opening Ceremonies entertainment be this time?—but I’ll also be interested to see if NBC and the rest give viewers a sense of the restricted environment and political milieu they’re working in, or if they just play along and keep the cameras in the stadium.