Friday, August 15, 2008

Deception at the Olympics

Unless you've been living under a rock or your dog recently ate your TV, then you probably saw the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. I'll admit that I hadn't planned to watch, but Amanda wanted to see it, so I figured I'd have a look. Needless to say, it was very impressive and a little unsettling.

First, let's cover the unsettling part, since I don't really plan to talk about that much. Seeing all those drummers working in perfect unison and knowing how tightly regimented society in the People's Republic of China can be, it made me feel as if the Chinese government was making the point that it can get a very large number of people to do whatever it wants. They lose their individuality and become instruments of the state any time the state demands it of them. I realize this may not be completely true, but the ceremony certainly gave that impression, and I doubt that was merely by chance.

Now back to the impressive part. There were fireworks galore, including some that were arranged to resemble giant footprints walking across the city. Then there were the performers, who were amazing. And let's not forget that huge LCD screen on the stadium floor that allowed the performers to create such beautiful artwork.

Yes, it was impressive, except that it turns out that some of it was faked.

First, there were the fireworks. It turns out that Olympics organizers decided it would be impossible for a helicopter to film the firework footprints as they made their way across Beijing, so they didn't use fireworks at all for that portion of the show. Instead, they created computer-generated fireworks and inserted that footage into the broadcast of the ceremony, only using real fireworks as the footprints approached the stadium. The rest, down to the Beijing smog, was entirely fake.

Then there was Lin Miaoke, the young girl who sang a beautiful solo piece. Except she didn't sing it at all. Instead, she lip-synced it while another girl, Yang Peiyi, located off-camera, sang. It seems that Communist Party officials wanted the perfect girl to perform. They judged Miaoke to be cute enough, but they didn't like the way she sang. On the other hand, they felt that Peiyi had the perfect voice, but she was not attractive enough. Naturally, the solution was to put Miaoke in front of the camera while having Peiyi sing. Was it deceitful? Of course. Was it good PR? I suppose it would have been if the deception hadn't been uncovered.

And, finally, there was this post on Slashdot. The author, after watching the opening ceremony on NBC, wondered if the network changed the order in which countries' athletes marched into the stadium, delaying the Americans' entry until later in the broadcast in order to hold viewers' attention. The author even noted that the athletes were shown on the infield before they were seen entering the stadium.

At this point, you may be wondering why any of this is important in the greater scheme of things. After all, it's only a sporting event, albeit a huge one. I believe there are three very important reasons you should care. First, it shows that, when lots of money and prestige are involved, people will go to great lengths to present the image that they want presented, even if that means engaging in large amounts of deception.

Second, NBC (and presumably other Olympics broadcasters) didn't mention any of this during the ceremony. Granted, they likely didn't know about the singing incident, but they certainly knew the fireworks weren't real, since the article stated that the fake footage was produced and inserted by the broadcasting group covering the ceremony, which I have little doubt NBC was either directly involved with or closely connected to, given that it is one of the world's largest television networks. And NBC announcers clearly pointed out the order in which athletes were arranged to enter the stadium. If that order was changed to hold viewers' attention, then that was blatant deception on the part of the network. If this was a broadcast of a work of fiction, then such manipulation would be acceptable, since fiction is, on its face, not reality. However, this was billed as factual coverage of an event, making such trickery unacceptable. If such manipulation is allowed to take place without consequences for the networks, then what else could the media try? Perhaps they might alter a suspect's image to make him look a bit more sinister. Oh, wait, Time was caught doing that when they darkened O.J. Simpson's face on their front cover after he was arrested.

The third and possibly most important reason this matters is because these deceptions could have easily gone unnoticed. Technology is quickly approaching the point where it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a photograph, video clip, or audio clip is authentic, altered, or completely fabricated. And if a technology can be used in a certain way, you can bet that, sooner or later, it will be used in that way.

In case you're wondering if I have a point, I think I do. When you use the media, be it newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or the Internet, remember that what you see and hear is not reality; it is mediated reality. It is filtered many times between what actually happened and what you are presented with. Most of this filtering is not done to deceive you. Some is done to highlight certain events, some is make the story fit into the time and space allowed, some is done to promote a particular point of view, and some is done in error. Just be aware of this filtering, and take whatever you are presented with a hearty dose of healthy skepticism.

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