The Olympic Games almost never disappoint when it comes to emotionally stirring TV spectacles. Every other year, the Games bring both jaw-dropping scores and tearful interviews. The latest viral moment from this year’s event in Sochi came from a brief interview NBC reporter Christin Cooper did with U.S. skier Bode Miller on Sunday: After he tied for a bronze medal in the men’s Super-G, she asked him about his brother, snowboarder Chelone “Chilly” Miller, who died last year at 29 from a seizure related to an earlier head injury.
In her first question, Cooper asked Miller how this race compares with others of his. He responded, “This was a little different,” he said. “With my brother passing away, I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sends it. So this was a little different.” Cooper asked a few questions that led him to tear up and eventually break down.
In response, the Internet hasn’t been too kind to Cooper.
Along with many Olympic fans, TV sports columnist Richard Sandomir argues in The New York Times that Cooper went too far. He says she “lacked the sensitivity to know when enough was enough.” Fans still feel the need to continue to protect Miller, even as he defended Cooper, saying she asked what any reporter would’ve asked.
Miller, in this case, is right. World-class athletes may perform seemingly superhuman feats, but the beauty of the Olympics is that they show these athletes' essential humanness. Many people love the Olympics because of the stories of struggle and triumph, especially in the face of personal hardship; it’s why fans love the cancer-to-medalist stories and tear up over Bob Costas segments. So reporters are supposed to ask these questions—by asking, they’re attempting to humanize what might otherwise look like just another buff body cloaked in snow gear.
One of my first jobs in journalism was as a summer intern at a newspaper, mostly covering courts, crime, and the military. Nearly every day, following editors’ requests, I was asking someone to tell me about a loved one’s death, not long after they had been informed by authorities. Questions included a variation on a theme of “Can you share with me the feelings you’re experiencing [after your loved one’s death]?”
One of my most memorable interviews was when I knocked on a man’s door within hours after his wife, two sons, and mother-in-law were all killed after a semi-truck plowed through their van. It felt sickening to be asking for a reaction and a photo so soon. He looked at me in disbelief over what had happened to his family but mustered enough energy to talk for about five minutes.
It did feel opportunistic to catch someone in such a vulnerable moment. In the end, though, we were able to publish more than just names of people who died. He was given the chance to tell about his wife and sons, to pick his favorite picture of them, ultimately helping us put a face and a story on what would otherwise have just been a police crash report.
Reporters must be able to ask tough questions that show the emotions of those who are being interviewed. It’s particularly easy to judge TV reporters, because they aren’t given the luxury of time, the ability to say “Take your time” as easily. By its very nature, TV journalism involves trying to keep eyeballs glued to the screen. But this is what reporters of all kinds do every single day. They ask questions no one else is “allowed” to ask at socially inappropriate moments. If given the chance, they can help share a larger story of a being who once lived. Perhaps Cooper, in this instance, wanted to tell the story of how Miller’s brother Chilly had inspired him in life and in skiing.
Reporters respond to verbal and nonverbal cues, but a display of tears does not necessarily mean an interviewee wants to stop talking. An interviewer can offer cues that they know they are asking something sensitive, that the give an interviewee an out, such as, “If you feel comfortable, tell me…” And those being interviewed can always decline to answer questions. In this case, Miller did not decline.
The interview Cooper conducted, then, wasn’t fantastic—but it wasn’t offensive, either. As she tried to hint at him to talk more about his brother, Cooper’s follow-up question about him pointing to the sky was her best: It was specific to the race but allowed him to elaborate in different directions. Perhaps he believes his brother is in heaven? Or was he asking a higher power for strength? By the way, is he spiritual or religious, maybe? Who knows where the interview could’ve gone, what motivations could’ve been on display. She asked broad questions about it—like “What’s going on there?”—that would allow him to steer the interview away from his brother.
Journalist Christine Scheller, a personal friend of mine, has written publicly about her son’s suicide, and she told me she felt Cooper could have stopped sooner, though the interview was in context of an Olympic coverage tradition of “humanizing with melodrama.”
“There is no way it could have been an ordinary sporting day for him in a year of firsts after tragedy,” Scheller said. “To not report that would have been a fail; plus, he opened the door.” By bringing up his brother’s death, Miller allowed her to follow up. It’s also important to note that Miller was crying before Cooper began interviewing him—she didn’t lead him to tears.
A little context could also help put Miller’s relationship with the media into perspective. This is not the first time Miller has been the center of attention after an especially raw interview. Miller apologized for comments made during 60 Minutes in January 2006, when he described the act of skiing as like being "wasted" and compared it to driving while intoxicated.
There has been a visible shift in how fans and media have treated Miller even since the last Olympics. The reporters who covered skiing hated him at the time, as John Canzano wrote for The Oregonian in 2010. “They think Bode Miller is arrogant, unapologetic and intentionally difficult,” he wrote. “They think he parties too much, and brags too much, and when they ask Miller a question he's prone to respond without regard to consequence.”
However, Canzano wrote that he was rooting for the guy, that Miller was different from other athletes. “And it doesn't bother me a bit that Miller won't consent to the mundane pitch-and-catch interviews that the media here prefers,” he wrote. “And I don't need him to be anything other than authentic.” This week, the media once again got “authentic” from Bode Miller.
It’s also important to note that Cooper has had a previous relationship with Miller, as Nathaniel Vinton writes for The Daily News. She built his trust over time, and that showed in his display of raw emotion. "I've known Christin a long time. She's a sweetheart of a person. I know she didn't mean to push," he said to Matt Lauer on Today. "I don't blame her at all."
No doubt, some reporters just want a good story, regardless of the cost. But many journalists simply look for opportunities to tell other people’s stories, regardless of the discomfort they, too, may feel during an interview. The pain of grief is real, as illustrated by Miller's unexpected breakdown, and the interview told a story about the pain humans—even Olympians—feel when confronting death.
If consumers complaints get loud enough, they may one day drive the Olympics to feel even more scripted than it already does, with mostly canned questions and answers from reporter to athlete. If fans really want to see the humanization of Olympians during the Olympics, they must be ready for raw emotion, whether it’s Ashley Wagner’s jaw drop or Bode Miller’s breakdown—even when it makes them uncomfortable.