Emotional Rescue

Christin Cooper's persistent questions to Bode Miller about the death of his brother illustrated a larger problem with NBC's Olympic coverage. (Getty Images)

Christin Cooper's persistent questions to Bode Miller about the death of his brother illustrated a larger problem with NBC's Olympic coverage. (Getty Images)

Sunday night provided some of the best prime-time Olympics coverage that we’ve gotten so far. The women’s snowboardcross was fun and exciting TV, men’s bobsled got underway and Bode Miller, one of the biggest and most familiar American stars left in these Games, won bronze in the Super-G.

That last event should have been a fairly straightforward nice moment: Miller has had some disappointing performances in the past, but this was his sixth Olympic medal, and he is the oldest person ever, at 36, to medal in an Alpine event.

The post-race interview with Miller started out discussing actual skiing-related things … but it quickly veered into a discussion of Miller’s younger brother Chelone, who died last year at 29 of an apparent seizure. Miller himself  brought the topic up, but the interviewer, Christin Cooper, asked emotional follow-up after emotional follow-up until Miller shed a few tears and then finally crouched over, unable to continue.

Many viewers, myself included, felt uncomfortable watching this –- as if we were witnessing a private moment that we had no place witnessing, and one that NBC had clearly provoked. But so far, much of the blame has been directed at Cooper. And she is not the real issue here.  She asked one or two more questions than she probably should have asked – For the Win has a partial transcript here. But she’s the tree. NBC’s overarching and now decades-long approach to covering the Olympics is the forest.

For many years now, but seemingly more with every Olympics it airs, NBC has prized emotional stories of athletes overcoming adversity above all else — including the actual sporting events. I joked the other night that the network might employ a black ops team to secretly bring pain into athlete’s lives so that they could overcome it on camera. But all kidding aside, the network’s coverage is drawn to tears like a shark to blood.

To a certain extent this is perfectly understandable. The Olympics are a vast and overwhelming event in which the American audience is familiar with only a handful of names. So even more than in most major sports, in order to help viewers make sense of it all, NBC works overtime constructing narratives, and it’s not always a bad thing. Like most people watching at home, I know nothing about skeleton, for instance, so when you tell me that American Katie Uhlaender is the daughter of the late MLB outfielder Ted Uhlaender, and give me a few likeable sound bites from her, I suddenly have a rooting interest to keep me engaged with this otherwise strange event. In most of these instances, there’s no real harm done, other than that the equally interesting stories of non-American athletes usually go untold.

But this obsession with the personal lives and personal dramas of the athletes can be, and often is, taken too far, as with Miller on Sunday night. It’s not only uncomfortable television, but also a disservice to both the actual and often amazing sporting feats that are the ostensible point of the whole thing, and to the more serious social and political issues swirling around these (and most) Olympic Games. Cooper is a cog in a larger and more messed-up machine, and she doesn’t deserve our vitriol. Still, it would be nice to see NBC put a tenth of the energy into covering the IOC’s very serious issues with corruption that it does into its heat-seeking-missile-like focus on painful personal stories and emotional payoffs.

35 thoughts on “Emotional Rescue

  1. So if it makes you feel uncomfortable, NBC shouldn’t do it. They need to protect you from being exposed to emotion. Idea, go to the kitchen or bathroom when you feel uncomfortable.

    • This is certainly not what she’s saying. In fact, she clearly indicated the personal narratives are helpful. However, do we need to overexpose? Can we feel for Miller, for example, without making his personal history of loss overshadow his personal victory at that moment?

      Spann is simply reminding us that there’s a difference between exploring a story and unnecessarily exploiting it.

  2. I love this article; thanks for writing it. I think this drama-focused coverage from NBC also shows ugly when silver or bronze medalists (or worse…fourth place!) is treated with disdain. Sure, if someone is expected to win gold and doesn’t, they might be disappointed, but that is theirs to say…not to be forced to answer to. I think I remember Michael Phelps being treated badly in this way in the most recent Summer Olympics too . And I remember how snobby Matt, Meredith and sometimes Bob were during those Olympics opening ceremonies with lines such as “they are just grateful to be here; they know they won’t win anything” about other nations! Just vanity, and it is sad and not in the true spirit of sportsmanship.

    What would happen if, instead of saying something like “oh, you must be tremendously disappointed in those results…what are your thoughts right now?”, Olympians were told “you should know that the US is tremendously proud of you, ” ? I think it would be a much better reflection of how most of us feel.

    • Awesome article…focus on the sports and less of the other stuff. I mean I love getting to know the athletes but I definitely disagree with exploiting their personal pain on an Olympic platform (or ever for that matter). I found especially interesting that the previous comment mentioned how nice it would be if after an off performance, the announcers were to say the US is so proud of you right now. If anyone has ever seen Canadian Olympic coverage that is EXACTLY what is said to and about the athletes regardless of placement. This probably wouldn’t be the first time we could take a lead from the Canadians.

  3. NBC and Bob Costas all make me sick. They should report on the positive. The athletes have worked many years and very hard to get to this point.

  4. The article is right and the comment by Dean Pierce is moronic. If Bode Miller wanted to confide in me, he’d seek me out; but, since I don’t know him and since he didn’t write a book about it , it really is none of my business. Something Dean Pierce can’t comprehend as he sits on the couch, reading the Inquirer when his soap operas aren’t on.

    I see a similarity in “news” articles that are based on someone’s Twitter comments — it’s not news! If I cared, I would subscribe.

  5. Great article and right on point! Overall, NBC has done a nice job mixing in human interest stories with the actual sports coverge. However, Christine Cooper’s post race interview was sensationalist journalism at its worst. Her relentless pursuit seemed solely intended to elicit tears and an emotional breakdown from Mr. Miller. Shameless in her efforts, and transparent in her pursuit, she did NBCno favors and left many of us questioning the real journalistic goals of NBC in these Olympics!

  6. Interesting article, I as well like to hear a bit of background on the athletes but Sunday’s interview went way too far it lacked class & compassion, regardless of story I will no longer watch/listen to this reporter.

  7. Good article. My wife and I thought the interview was shameful and wondered if it would get any follow-up. The media should at least try to be as professional as our athletes.

    • Tom, I agree completely with you and your wife. ABC & NBC have always liked to focus on the tragedy of the events. Never should the death of a loved on or close friend be brought up except to pass along condolences to an athlete and maybe off-air. We could use a little decorum in these highly sensitive situations.

    • It was pretty darn slimy belaboring the point like that. You could tell right away he didn’t want to be pressed about it. Completely overaggressive on the topic.

  8. All that matters is what happens on the ice/ramps/whatever. Winners & losers. Who they are simply doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, and this monstrous focus on who they are only gets in the way of, and takes the place of watching, you know, actual *sport* taking place. These are among the best athletes in the world; show them doing what they do best, rather than how they’re like everyone else. Celebrating awesomeness ought to be what the games are all about.

  9. All this back story stuff is grotesquely manipulative and should be eliminated. I know a man whose son was on one of the 9/11 planes that struck the world trade center. Would it be even remotely seemly to probe his feelings about his son’s death? I think not. So why should Miller have to be subjected to such crass questioning – on national television?!? The dissolution of American media continues…

  10. I myself believe Kristen Cooper went to far. Miller’s life is private and if he wants to share his life that’s his choice. But to keep nagging him with questions after questions about his life and then to continue when he is crying us on call for. Cooper and NBC don’t seem to care about respecting anyone private life. All they care is about rating. Great article, thank you for sharing it with all of us

  11. The post race interview with Olympian Bodie Miller made me so uncomfortable that I voted with my hands, I turned the channel to avoid hearing anymore of the Dr Phil probing into Millers private life. The interviewer seemed to relish making Miller feel uncomfortable. Not what I want to see under the circumstances. I am not familiar with the Canadian media approach but it sure sounds enlightened compared to the NBC approach!

  12. When you combine that interview with the countless shots of Bode’s wife, you really have to question NBC’s coverage. I would have rather heard some interviews about the course, the snow conditions etc. Maybe what I saw happen (Miller’s hadn touched the ground, others going of course etc.) on the actual course is commonplace, but I would much rather have had additional insight into that than the emotional side of things. NBC did talk about the conditions, but there certainly could have been more focus on that.

  13. Didn’t see the apres-ski Miller interview, but it seems to follow a general trend of media – in particular host broadcasters – wanting their pound of flesh while the sweat isn’t yet dry on athletes’ foreheads. Nowadays the first thing likely to happen when you cross the line, the final hooter sounds, or the last ball disappears, is some schmuck will appear beside you, Zelig-like, stick a microphone in your face and squeak, “Talk about how you’re feeling right now?!” Those first precious moments – instead of remaining between the athletes and their families, friends and supporters – hijacked by the networks to fuel their ever grubbier ratings wars. It sucks.

    Can imagine the scene in the tv booth in Sochi as Miller is being interviewed: “Looking good guys. Keep focusing on his face. He’s beginning to lose it! He’s losing it! Close up camera one. Stay on his face. Just there. Perfect. That’s the money shot right there. Great work guys!”

  14. A completely tasteless and disrespectful interview. Clearly she was intent on pushing him to an emotional breakdown. One probing question after another about his brother’s tragic death just a few months ago. It was obvious he was struggling with the topic and she just kept going. Of course the guy was going to breakdown – who wouldn’t? That was not professional reporting. Just blatant disregard for another human being and his family for the sole purpose of some kind of professional gain. She stole his incredible olympic moment for her own agenda. Pathetic and selfish.

  15. Christine Cooper could take a page from Erin Andrews. When the interview gets off-track, get off the air!

  16. It was handled badly by NBC, but let’s not forget how bode miller handled the custody battle for his son. He is an unsympathetic scumbag.

  17. My wife and I were shouting at her to shut up and let him walk away with a little dignity. It went way too far, I would think it’s more on NBC with their constant driving home of narratives is trying on the viewer. The “sideline reporter” is always a bad idea and continually asks dumb questions trying to be the “one” to do something memorable. The action of the athlete is the memorable part, not a interview afterward.

  18. There’s a reason I watch the Olympics on CBC. They do air personal stories, but the actual events are the focus of the broadcast.

  19. I’ve always felt this was a bait and switch solely to get tears. (a) find athlete who has worked his whole life to achieve an amazing goal. (b) interview him/her immediately after goal has been achieved — when his/her emotions must be at a maximum. (c) plant thought of dead family member.

    Even if the athlete hadn’t been thinking about that loved one, he/she is at maximum emotional capacity. You take all the emotions of accomplishment and joy and you just add that one negative to the mix, and it’s like the lit fuse reaching the bomb.

    I’ve always thought NBC just wanted to be able to tape the bombs going off.

    • I completely agree with you! It’s so wrong to manipulate athletes emotions at times that should be joyful. Or any time.

  20. Unfortunately for you, the majority of people eat it up. This line of questioning is far less annoying than NBC putting a mic on Miller’s professional beach volleyball player wife of just more than one year (who he met recently enough that he had a child with another woman about five months AFTER the wedding). That feels far more contrived than asking a guy a legitimate question based on the emotion he is clearly showing.

  21. I’m sure there are studies and focus groups that support the media’s antics in these situations, but I agree with the writer that it is unfair to the athletes. There clearly can be a better balance between getting to know the participants in these sports (many of which are not widely followed outside of the Olympics) and forcing emotion from the athletes to create drama.

  22. I was a tv news reporter for 34 years. Every reporter in the country knew what Christin was doing. She was TRYING to make Bode cry. period. He ought to watch the coverage before he forgives her. It was the worst interview I’ve ever seen.

  23. Christin Cooper putting her hand on Bode’s arm after he’d already begun to break down was the last straw. It was a clear violation of his privacy and intended, I suspect, to cause further tears. I’m still incredibly pissed off about it. It was also wrong of the camera men to follow him when he went off alone to collect himself.
    Putting the mike on his wife was a little random, but lots of parents and coaches are miked.
    Last of all, the situation with Bode’s son is none of our business. Yes, he could have been more careful, but he’s grown so much over the years, I have no place faulting him for something I’ve done myself…

  24. Let us not forget the originator of this emotionally exploitative, personal-narrative-driven method of sports journalism was ABC, with its “Up Close and Personal” segments during the Olympics in the 1970s. NBC has merely taken a tried and true recipe and given it steroids.

    TV networks pay a lot of money to televise the Olympics. Like the Super Bowl, it is one of the few remaining TV events that attracts a large and diverse audience. Diverse, as in a lot of people who are not sports fans at all, much less followers of the skeleton or biathlon.

    So, like the Super Bowl’s tearjerker pregame stories and halftime concerts, Olympics coverage requires more than just coverage of the games themselves. Non-sports fans don’t care about the score. They just want to cheer for the U.S.A. and learn about the people playing the games. NBC feeds off that (or maybe preys on it) with its focus on sob stories.

    But that is not a departure for NBC in any journalistic realm. From the time Katie Couric’s perky mug took over morning TV, NBC has continually focused on the emotional side of the story rather than the facts. It selects topics based on that angle (cancer, sexual predators, missing blonde girls, identity theft) and then develops narratives that fulfill the wishes of the majority of the audience – to be emotionally manipulated.

    Olympics coverage, sports coverage, and TV journalism in general, have become fact-based dramatizations of somewhat actual events. And if the lowest common denominator audience didn’t want it that way, they wouldn’t watch it. Just like we get the democracy we deserve, we also get the television we deserve.

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  26. If the Network thought the interview was wonderful, why did it digitally Blot out the face of the interviewer in the camera shot after the interview??