Tears and prayers on camera: Did NBC want the full Oprah?

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Anyone who has watched television coverage of tense, painful events has seen it happen. This is especially true of news events that can, in any way, accurately be described as “disasters.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with the late Peter Jennings about what happens next on camera:

Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence.

“Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’”

In other words, the person caught up in this panful event did not give the kind of answer that was being sought by the interviewer. Often, Jennings said, the person gives an answer that is rooted in religious faith — a factor that many media superstars fail to take seriously.

But, just as often, the person who has experienced pain or some great lose gives a rather straightforward and dignified answer. At that point the interviewer asks another question that, for media critics, has come to live in infamy. If the person on camera continues to hold his or her emotional act together, then the interviewer starts asking, over and over, variations on this basic question: How. Do. You. Feel. Right. Now.

That’s what is being debated right now, of course, in all of the social-media chatter about the media ethics involved in the infamous interview (see the YouTube at the top of this post) with Olympics skier Bode Miller that was conducted by Chirstin Cooper of NBC Sports. At the heart of this grab-the-viewer scene, of course, is the lingering grief caused by the recent death of his 29-year-old brother, snowboarder Chelone “Chilly” Miller. Here’s one transcript of the key moment in this on-air drama:

Miller: “This [medal] was a little different. I think, you know, my brother passing away — I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. So this was a little different.”

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?”

Miller: “A lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here. Just a though year.”

Cooper: “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly really experiencing these Games. How much does it mean to come with a great performance for him, or was it for him?”

[Miller began to cry.]

Miller: “It’s just a tough year. I don’t know if it’s really for him. I just wanted to come here and, I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.”

Cooper: “When you’re looking up in the sky at the start … it just looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?”

As I have already hinted, these push-for-tears questions tend, as a rule, to make me go rather crazy.

However, there is the chance that this is the rare case in which the interviewer was not only pushing for a tear-soaked TV visual, but for a quote that somehow involved (a) God, (b) the skier’s brother, (c) heaven or (d) all of the above.

In other words, Cooper appears to have been going for the full Oprah.

In the case of Miller, this quest for on-camera spirituality is especially interesting in light of this family history, growing up in a nature-loving family in the mountains of New Hampshire. When you grew up in a homeschooling, vegetarian family and your sister’s name is Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart, it’s hard to know precisely what religious influences might be at play.

The question for me, at this point, is whether Cooper is in trouble with media critics because she pushed for on-camera emotion (which seems rather ordinary, to be frank) or for a reference to prayerful words uttered in the direction of his brother or God (or gods). Here’s a sample of the anger at The New York Times, care of TV sports critic Richard Sandomir:

If you’ve made a medal winner cry, it is time to simply say “thank you” and move on. It was on tape, so NBC could have cut it off and gone to Matt Lauer in the studio. Instead, Cooper forged on, wondering whom he seemed to be talking to when he looked up in the sky before he started his run down the mountain.

It was not a bad question, but by this point, it was overkill.

“What’s going on there?” she said.

Miller’s helmeted head was bowed and he was unable to answer. The clock kept ticking, and I expected NBC to turn its camera elsewhere or for Cooper to say, “Thanks, Bode, you had a great race.” That did not happen. And there was no interview with the gold medalist, Kjetil Jansrud, to plug in and change the tempo.

Instead, Cooper, a former Olympian who won a silver medal in the giant slalom at the 1984 Games, tried to comfort Miller, putting a hand on his shoulder. In all, NBC lingered over this scene for 75 seconds — as Miller continued to weep, as he walked away, as he was comforted and as his wife embraced him. He might have cried on his own, for his brother, for joy, for the way his life had changed. But had the tears not been provoked by Cooper’s questions, we probably would not have seen that emotion.

So, is the emotion a valid part of the information that needed to be reported, that needed to be pulled out of the person being interviewed? Was it too much to pry for spiritual details, as opposed to a network cutting away from an athlete who launches into Godtalk (which seems to happen a few times every year)?

Was the line Cooper crossed rooted in privacy, personal religious faith or both?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    Ah the power of Disqus. It can shut down even the hottest of social-media conversations.

  • David M Paggi

    I saw the interview in question, and to my mind is was intrusive, banal & tasteless. To which the likely reply might be, “yeah, but what were the ratings?”

    The media need the athletes and the athletes need the media. Most of the interview segments I’ve seen reflect planning, preparation, & professionalism, by both parties. The athletes have been coached on what to say & how, & the press people are generally sticking to appropriate questions – they are not there to sandbag the kids working so hard in their sport.

    All of which served to make this interview that much worse by comparison. The press people have been feeding on Bode Miller for a record amount of time, and this was perhaps the last meal he would be serving up. To me at least, it seems crass to pick his bones clean – one should aspire to be an eagle, not a raven.

    It is not in the province of a journalist to act as an amateur grief counselor; only Oprah can get away with that, and that because 1) its expected and 2) she owns it all so she can make the rules.

    So yes, I believe Cooper was way over several lines. Had she been sincere in her efforts, she would have passed the ball to someone else and done her bit off-camera. That she did it with lights on and tape rolling suggests strongly that her motives were more opportunistic than altruistic.

    Is Cooper supposed to do whatever it takes to get the story? Is Bode, who after all has built his remarkable career to some degree on the press, fair game?

    I think not; in this symbiotic relationship, different rules should apply than with hard news. After all, where would Muhammed Ali been without Howard Cosell – and vice-versa?


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