Olympic ski champion Bode Miller’s impressive bronze showing in the men’s super-G was overshadowed by the interview with him afterward.
The race was an historic one for the 36-year-old skier, who became the oldest Alpine medalist in the history of the Olympics. But NBC’s Christin Cooper didn’t focus on that in her interview with Miller. Instead, she wanted to know how his run was impacted by the loss of his brother, Chelone (Chelly), who died last year at the age of 29.
Cooper pounced on the opportunity to discuss Chelone’s death after Miller labeled the race an emotional one. She pushed with questions, each one causing the skier to lose more composure. Finally, with NBC’s cameras in a close-up on his face, he had the emotional breakdown that the reporter and presumably the network were looking for — bent over, face hidden from view, and overcome with tears. Cooper even put her hand on Miller’s shoulder to demonstrate her “compassion.”
It was shameless exploitation of the moment, designed to create must-see TV.
Clearly, NBC wasn’t just covering this story. It was creating and entirely packaging it. Similar to what’s done with reality TV, all elements were designed for making a big emotional impact on the audience.
If it were otherwise, Cooper would have interviewed the gold-medal winner, Kjetil Jansrud. But perhaps his story wasn’t as compelling as Miller’s.
It’s hard to blame Cooper for the entirety of the interview, as she may have had a producer in her earpiece, pushing her to proceed. She’s also not just a reporter, but a former skier and Olympic medalist herself.
When assigning blame, remember this: Most audience members didn’t watch the competition live, but instead saw it during prime-time Sunday. NBC executives had most of the day to determine how to edit and present the interview. They led into the men’s super-G with a story about Miller and his wife that emphasized Chelone’s death and the emotional impact it had on the family. They also put a microphone on Miller’s wife during the competition.
Following the storm of criticism the interview generated, Miller defended Cooper, saying that the reporter was just doing her job. It was a nice touch, and he was certainly more considerate than NBC. Nobody would have blamed Miller for stopping the initial interview three questions earlier than he did, let alone for not coming to the defense of his tormentor.
Reporters sometimes have to ask tough questions. That’s required and expected. When these questions lead to spontaneous expressions of emotion, the moments are real and revelatory. Even when reporters stick microphones in the faces of people who have just suffered indescribable tragedies and ask that most insipid of questions — “How do you feel?” — the faux pas is somewhat excusable because, really, it’s the only question that can be asked.
But reporters can’t force such moments, and Cooper certainly had many other questions worth asking a six-time medal winner. When she kept prodding and prodding, and NBC’s cameras kept moving closer and closer — like vultures circling their prey — the real agenda was revealed.
This wasn’t about reporting. It was a ploy to boost ratings.