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.