Sun's Olympics Reporter Was Paid to Write for IOC's Magazine

Jeff Lee says his editors cleared him to take free-lance job, can't recall fee.

By Andrew MacLeod 22 May 2009 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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Lee's gig: Jan/Feb/March issue of Olympic Review.

The Vancouver Sun's lead reporter on the Olympics, Jeff Lee, has over the years written some stories unlikely to please the International Olympic Committee or local organizers. But the IOC must not have minded his recent "Feeling the Buzz" piece on preparations for the games in Vancouver and Whistler.

They paid for it and published it.

"Feeling the Buzz" appeared in the January, February, March issue of The Olympic Review, billed on the cover as the "official publication of the Olympic movement." The masthead says the 84-page magazine is published by the International Olympic Committee. It includes a foreward by Jacques Rogge, IOC president.

"I'm being paid for it, sure. I'm freelancing," said Lee. "I would hope nobody at The Tyee would suggest I've given them a free ride or this is a conflict."

On holiday and on his way for lunch with his mother, Lee said he had little time to talk, though he did spend several minutes on the phone. "I don't see any point having a discussion about it at this point," he said. "I was waiting for you guys to call. Someone told me you were on this bullshit."

'Unifying force for humankind'

Lee's Olympic Review story opens with bid president John Furlong telling chairman Jack Poole on the day they won the right to host the games that they had "moved a mountain."

Wrote Lee, "In the six years since that moment in Prague, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), with Furlong still at its helm, has continued to move mountains, if not literally then certainly figuratively."

Corporate sponsors have brought "financial muscle" to the organization, venues have been built on time, buyers have snapped up tickets and the games include economic and cultural opportunities for indigenous people, he found.

"More importantly, Canada as a country adopted the message of the Olympic movement as a unifying force for humankind through sports."

Environmental sustainability has featured prominently, Lee's story said, with green buildings and district heating projects. The athlete's village is proceeding within sight of B.C. Place where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held.

Furlong himself, by the way, now the CEO of VANOC, has a "gift for oratory [that] has long been seen as one of the keys to VANOC's success."

'He needs to disclose': critic

The content, however, matters less than the optics of a reporter taking payment from an organization that he's covering.

"I would see it as a conflict," said Chris Shaw, the author of Five Ring Circus, an investigative look at the Vancouver Olympic bid. "I don't think it's a sin. It's just something that needs to be out there in the public."

Lee is welcome to take the IOC's money even as he writes about the Olympics for the Vancouver Sun, Shaw said, but he should let his readers know. "He needs to disclose that when he writes for The Sun," he said. "It is a conflict and it should be disclosed the same way I would in my scientific world. Then everything's on the table and it's fair."

He added, "It's only a conflict if it's not really disclosed."

Asked if Sun readers likely knew he'd worked for the IOC's official publication, Lee said, "Whether or not my Sun readers knew about it, all they have to do is go on the Internet." A moment later he added, "The readership for The Olympic Review is not the same as for The Sun.”

The Olympic Review is produced by a company under contract to the IOC, said Lee, so the IOC would not be paying him directly. He said he does not remember what the publication agreed to pay him, nor has he billed yet having had a busy year in which his father died and his mother was injured.

Editors were aware

The editors approached him and asked him to write the piece, he said, as they have done with other reporters in other Olympic cities. "This is a common thing," he said. "If you go back and look at The Olympic Review for Olympics in the past, whether it was Torino, Athens or anywhere else, what they do is depend on a reporter who's in the area."

Lee said getting paid to write an article for the IOC's magazine is different from taking free tickets or some other kind of benefit. Nor did it come with any expectations. "Would the IOC expect me to give them an easy ride or change my tone or do something different? The answer is no."

His editors were aware of the story, he said. "I did clear this with my editors," he said. "My editors were advised I'd been asked to do this and nobody had any problem with it."

Lee suggested calling Sun editor-in-chief Patricia Graham. The Tyee did call her, but she did not phone back by posting time.

The Sun's parent company, Canwest Publishing Inc., is an official print media supplier to the Vancouver 2010 games, according to VANOC's sponsorship web page as are The Globe and Mail and La Presse.

Strained relations

Lee said his relationship with VANOC has at times been rough. During the bid phase, there were members of the committee who complained to his publisher, he said, though he declined to go into detail on what the story that bothered them was about.

"My relations with the people at VANOC happen to be somewhat strained at the moment," he said, without providing details.

Shaw characterized Lee's coverage of the Olympics for The Sun as "variable". Much Olympic coverage tends towards puff pieces, he said, and Lee has written some of them. "Most reporters in this city err on the side of being kind to the Olympics and kind to VANOC."

But, said Shaw, Lee has also done some strong work. "Every now and then his better journalistic instincts kick in and he asks some hard questions," he said. "He can be a very hard-nosed reporter when he wants to... He can do the hard investigative journalism stuff, he just doesn't always do that."

The Tyee looking at his work for Olympic Review would be a "cheap shot," Lee predicted. "I know what's going to come out of it will probably be an attack story on me," he said. "I think this is just mischief making. It's in the grand tradition of journalism to go mischief making, but people will see this is pretty thin stuff."

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