The eyebrows of Denver media watchers went way up this month when longtime Denver Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla used Twitter to advertise for a sponsor willing to help defray the cost of sending him to Beijing to cover the 2022 Winter Olympics. Most saw this awkward plea, which was followed days later by a Kiszla tweet admitting that his Hail Mary had failed, as more evidence of the Post's diminished circumstances under the ownership of cost-cutting hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
But the situation is more complicated than that. Also involved are the global COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitics — factors that likely contributed to the decision of NBC, the official U.S. broadcaster of the games that begin February 3, to cover a large percentage of the competitions remotely rather than in person, as Kiszla dreamed of doing.
Kiszla's initial tweet on the subject, sent on January 14: "I’ve been honored to write about Colorado athletes in every Winter Olympics since 1998. Now required to raise $ to cover Games in China, still looking for corporate sponsor to underwrite trip. If your company can help, let’s chat. If not, humble thanks for reading thru the years."
The message didn't induce any big-bucks funders to step up, but it generated plenty of conversation. One person replied: "Venture capital group trying to squeeze every last penny out of the local newspaper should be ashamed of itself, but it surely is not. I know this corporation, Alden Global Capital, they are flush with cash. Surely with their billions in profit they could spare some to sponsor you…." Another wrote, "I think I'd stay the hell out of China, putting aside what scumbags the owners of The Post must be."
Tensions between the United States and China are running high right now. As noted in this January 25 Reuters report, the U.S. is among the governments that have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics over "the Chinese government's treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups, which the United States has deemed genocide. China denies the allegations of human rights abuses."
Meanwhile, a collection of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to NBC executives over concerns about "the level of influence the Chinese Communist Party and the International Olympic Committee has in NBC's 2022 Winter Olympics programming." NBC, which ponied up $7.65 billion for Olympics broadcast rights through 2032, has insisted that it won't ignore political issues in its coverage, but will still focus on athletic matters.
Back on the Record with Bob Costas. Among the episode's guests was Colorado Olympics skiing legend Lindsey Vonn, who'll offer commentary during the games, but from a location far from Beijing.
"Because of all the overlapping circumstances — the situation in China politically, COVID, all the rest — NBC has decided that, except for the technical people who have to be there and very few announcers, almost all of you...will work out of their studios in Stamford, Connecticut," Costas said.
"Yeah, I think that's disappointing," Vonn replied. "You know, when anyone is covering the Olympics, you want to be there. You want to see the conditions and be able to, you know, accurately report on what's going on, so people watching at home can understand more from the athlete's perspective — understand how people won or why people made mistakes. But unfortunately, this is the new time that we're living in. You know, COVID and politics, and there's so much going on right now.... I trust NBC to make the right decision. As much as we want to see firsthand what's going on on-site, I think everyone's safety needs to come first."
Did such issues also trouble folks at the Post? Neither Kiszla nor Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo responded to Westword's questions. Colacioppo also failed to reply to a similar inquiry last July, when Westword asked why Kiszla's columns from the summer Olympics in Tokyo included a logo that read, "Presented by the Blake Street Tavern." But according to Blake Street Tavern owner Chris Fuselier, the tag was a reference to the restaurant's sponsorship of the Kickin' It With Kiz podcast. Given the challenges the restaurant industry is facing right now, Fuselier chose not to underwrite Kiszla's Winter Olympics coverage, but says he definitely feels for him. "It's a shame that a reporter, a columnist, has to look for sponsors," he adds.
The effort didn't work. On January 18, Kiszla tweeted, "The Olympics are my thing (hey, we all have our weaknesses). Been my great, fortunate privilege to cover a dozen Games. Plug has been officially pulled on trip to China. Humble thanks to all (too many to count) that have read my Olympic gibberish. Onward to Paris 2024."
Or maybe not — especially if disease, politics and/or the financial realities of the newspaper business cause problems again.