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The Main Media Center: Hosting the eyes and ears of the world

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Beth White used to get paid for coming up with new ways to entertain kids as a writer for "Double Dare," a television game show known for the messes made by the young contestants.

Now, as the general manager of the Main Media Center for the 2002 Winter Games, she's doing the same for an even tougher crowd — the 9,000 accredited journalists from around the world who'll call the facility in the Salt Palace home.

White's easy-going attitude hasn't changed much from her days in children's television. "This is fun," she said. "A stress job is when you're operating on someone's brain. This is the Games."

Instead of dreaming up such challenges as a shoot-out using baked beans as ammunition like she did for the popular Nickelodeon TV show, White is checking over menus for a fancy Italian restaurant set up inside the media center just for the Games.

She's also overseeing the installation of enough desks, telephones and television sets — including four giant projection-screen models — to fill the 45,000-square-foot convention hall that's being converted into the shared worked area called the bullpen.

Plus there's the details associated with the dozens of newspapers and press agencies settling in to leased office space in another section of the convention center. And setting up a variety of services for the media, such as a 75-seat bar and a hair salon.

White's responsibilities also include the area set aside for NBC and the foreign television networks that have spent millions of dollars for the rights to air the Games because, for the first time, both print and broadcast journalists are working in the same building.

She's being careful not to promise too much to journalists, who have a reputation for being critical as organizers of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta found out after promising the event would be the biggest and the best ever.

When journalists ran into trouble with technology and transportation, Atlanta became known around the world as the "Glitch Games" and worse. The Southern city was ridiculed as the butt of "Bubba" jokes.

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White knows what's at stake for SLOC and for Utah. "Definitely. There's no doubt. We have discussed as a venue that the final decision whether the Games are a success or not depends on the world media."

That means, she said, managing expectations. "Make it right and add pretty later," is one of White's rules. "I've never heard the media say, 'This needs to have hollandaise on it' or 'This chair needs to recline,' " White said.

"They don't want the finest . . . They're asking for a place to work, to get results in a reasonable amount of time and a good meal after working an 18-hour day," she said. "We want to make sure we have the essentials for the world's media."

A city in miniature

The media center, really a mini-city, officially opens to its temporary residents Monday and shuts down forever three days after the Feb. 24 close of the Games. The average daily population is estimated at about 6,500, including 1,600 staff, volunteers and contractors.

Access is only for accredited media from news organizations awarded the right to cover the Games through their national Olympic committees. There are separate press facilities in Salt Lake City and Park City for the thousands of non-accredited media coming.

The list of accredited media includes just about every major newspaper and wire service in the world plus television networks in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea, Latin America, South America and Africa.

In the United States alone, the U.S. Olympic Committee distributed more than 500 print credentials to more than 150 organizations ranging from the Peoria (Ill.) Star Journal to People Magazine. NBC, of course, is the U.S. broadcaster.

Even though the center isn't open yet — it was shut down completely for two days this week for a security sweep — reporters are already in Salt Lake working on stories about the Games.

Hiroshi Harada, Salt Lake City bureau chief for Japan's Kyodo News, has been here since last October. His staff, now at eight, will increase to 26 from Japan by Games time. So far, many of the stories filed by the wire service from Salt Lake City have dealt with security

"The Japanese people are very much sensitive about the security in Salt Lake City," Harada said through an interpreter. The interest is especially high, he said, because the last Winter Games were in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

There have been so many questions about security issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee started holding weekly press briefings for the international media.

A flood of questions

While White is handling the care and feeding of media masses, it's SLOC's chief communications officer and spokeswoman, Caroline Shaw, who has to deal with the media's inquires.

Shaw doesn't answer every question personally, of course. She has a staff of 31, some of whom will be posted at the media center day and night to field questions. SLOC also has its own news service available via some 800 special computer terminals.

SLOC already is fielding hundreds of telephone calls every day from reporters around the world. That number will be in the thousands by the time the Games begin. It's a far cry from the handful of local media calls Shaw used to handle when she started some four years ago.

Shaw said security will likely continue to dominate the media's interest. "We're also starting to get a sense of the importance of the Games, how the Games are different post-Sept. 11 and do they have new meaning," she said.

What her team is trying to convey to the media is that the Games "are for the athletes. The people in Salt Lake City are friendly and fun. The ceremonies, the look, our celebrations have heart and meaning."

'I like it very much'

Not every story about the Games centers around security. Recent articles in the New Yorker magazine and the Sunday New York Times dealt with the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Olympics.

Roland Weissmann of the Austrian Broadcasting Corp. said one of the reports he'll file for Austria's national radio station will deal with "Mormons, because we have all wrong rumors about them."

Weissmann, who said he toured Temple Square to learn more about the faith, said most Austrians believe members of the LDS Church "don't drink, don't smoke and all have five wives."

He said he was surprised at what he found when arrived recently in Salt Lake City for his first visit. "I have to say, I like it very much," he said. "I expected something different. Something more religious. I thought there (would) be no alcohol, no smoking and very holy people."

Instead, Weissmann said he stumbled across several Austrians that he's profiling in radio reports that will air before the Games, including a local baker and SLOC's alpine sports director, Herwig Demschar.

Weissmann, a news and feature reporter, said he'll be leaving Utah before the Games begin and turning over coverage to the radio station's sports department. "Once the Games start, this is the work of the sports people," he said.

"The Winter Olympic Games are very, very important for Austrians because Austria is such an important ski country," Weissmann said. "It's even more important than the Summer Games."

Winter sports are also important to Reuters' readers, many of whom are also in Europe. The London-based wire service is bringing a staff of 80 to the Games, including 25 journalists and 30 photographers. One reporter has been here since December.

"We've always had a heavy focus on Olympics because we have a worldwide audience," said Paul Radford, Reuters' sports editor. "Obviously with Sept. 11, that has made it a bigger story than in the past."

He said some topics are unavoidable for reporters, including the scandal surrounding Salt Lake's Olympic bid. "If you're going to write about Salt Lake, you've got to write about the scandal," Radford said.

The wire service's story on the more than $1 million spent to influence the votes of International Olympic Committee members and the charges filed against bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson will be "more historic," he said.

The LDS Church and its influence on the Games is another topic that Reuters will tackle. "We'll obviously be doing some stories on that," Radford said. "I don't think it's going to dominate our coverage."

Radford, who made his first visit to Utah a year ago, said he already has some advice for his staff. "I'm telling them that in terms of organization, this is going to be as good as they'll ever see. The organization there is really first class and one of the best I've ever seen."

But Radford said he isn't able to say the same about Salt Lake City itself.

"What I'm telling them about the place is it's not the most exciting in the world and not to expect a raging nightlife."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com