NBC’s Triumph from Tragedy
Monday, February 17, 2014
As I watched Olympic skier Bode Miller being interviewed by NBC’s Christin Cooper after his record-setting bronze medal, I had one wish for him. I wished that he would grab Cooper and throw her over the fence to a pack of Sochi’s infamous wild dogs.
Bode Miller is one of the greatest ski racers of all time. He had just become the winner of the most Olympic medals for an American skier, and at 36, the oldest to win one. But in the NBC way of covering sports, all triumph must be shadowed by tragedy. Cooper hammered away at Miller about his recently deceased younger brother until this great athlete at a pinnacle moment in his life was bent over in tears.
The Olympics have plenty of drama without creating it. Miller was a favorite to win but finished out of the medals in the downhill. His run in the Super-G put him temporarily in first place. We heard him say he didn’t think he’d hold on. Then we watched as he stood there in good-natured composure as he dropped to a tie for second. He was smiling when his teammate Andrew Weibrecht pushed him down to third, which is a great Olympic moment right there.
Miller was delighted to be among the medalists and said so to Cooper. “I’m just super, super happy.” Then, unfortunately, he mentioned his brother who died last April of the after affects of a snowboarding brain injury. “I really wanted to come back and race the way he sends it.” Nice. It tells you he was thinking about his brother and ran a professional race. It displayed emotion while keeping his dignity.
Then Cooper moved in, the cheetah going after the gazelle. She asked what was going through Miller’s mind, did he race for his brother. Miller’s lips started to tremble. She asked four questions about Miller’s brother, the last of which was this: “When you’re looking up at the sky at the start and we see you there, and it looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?”
That was it. Miller broke down and doubled over in tears. The cheetah had her kill and the NBC cameras lingered on him.
Cooper came under immediate fire for pushing too far. But in a display of generosity Miller sent out an Internet message saying, “Please be gentle w christin cooper, it was crazy emotional and not all her fault.” But yes, it was. What she did was usurious and rude.
In broadcast journalism making people cry is a refined skill. You lean in, lower your voice, put your hand on their forearm and talk to them like a friend. Reporters who do it are not looking for answers, they want tears. They want a show of emotion because that’s what their bosses think will connect with an audience. In a way, it’s what easy. And Cooper did what NBC wanted her to do, otherwise they would have edited the interview that was aired hours after it was done.
When it comes to the Olympics, NBC covers emotions as much as events. For years the network profiled athletes as weepy tragic victims who had overcome all odds. Every graceful skater and sprinter was someone who, “they thought he would never walk again.” Every top-flight athlete was so debilitated you’d think it was the Special Olympics.
In 1988 ABC made a soap opera out of speed skater Dan Jansen, who was informed while he was competing in Calgary that his sister had died of leukemia. NBC still plays a clip of Jansen as one of the emotional Olympic tragedies, failing to mention that he returned in 1994 to win a gold medal.
Today, an Olympic athlete can’t enter the arena without a litany of her family tribulations and a reminder to the world that her mother is in prison.
Sometimes great story telling is in what you don’t say, and sometimes journalism is what you don’t ask. You get the best stuff standing back and letting it happen.
Eventually Bode Miller stood up. His wife came and hugged him and they spoke. She whispered in his ear, smiled and laughed. They were beautiful together. What they said to each other was between just them, a great Olympic moment. And lucky for us all, Christin Cooper wasn’t there to ask a question about it.