February 20, 2014 | Vol. 117 -- No. 44

Asking those tough questions is never easy

Crunch Time

For those who saw NBC sports reporter Christin Cooper’s interview with skier Bode Miller after he tied for a bronze medal in the super-G at the Sochi Olympics, one request.

Don’t be so quick to judge, unless you’ve been there.

Cooper has received an angry backlash for her line of questioning many thought was going to far, far enough to eventually make Miller breakdown in tears. It was an awkward, uncomfortable moment, but it was the culmination of an intense, drama filled race.

Miller was trying to win his first medal at Sochi and in the process become the oldest Alpine Olympic medallist in history at 36 years, 127 days. Up to Sunday’s super-G, things hadn’t gone well.

In fact, Miller has had a stressful time since the 2010 games in Vancouver. Injuries, marriage, bitter custody battle over his children and culminating with the death of his 29-year-old brother Chelone last year, an Olympic-prospect snowboarder who succumbed to seizures sustained as a result of a dirt bike accident.

NBC played this up for all it was worth on Sunday with taped interview segments, miking Miller’s wife Morgan as she watched from the stands, and showing close-ups of Bode prior to his race quietly mouthing words as he looked skyward. After his run put him in the lead, the network kept the emotions running as each successive skier tried and failed to bump him from the top of the podium.

Even when eventual gold medallist Kjetil Jansrud took the lead, the Miller saga continued. Finally, after fellow U.S. teammate Andrew Weilbrecht’s silver medal run knocked Miller into a tie for bronze with Canada’s Jan Hudec, Cooper approached the four-time Olympian for comments.

She first asked him to put his accomplishment into perspective, given the challenges he faced, followed by what the medal meant to him given the number he has already earned. No problems there.

When his second answer revealed emotion, she asked him what was going through his mind. That’s also a good question, and fair territory given the circumstances.

According to a transcript of the interview, this is what followed.

Miller: Um, it means, a lot. Obviously just a long struggle coming in here. It’s just a tough year.

Cooper: I know you wanted to be here with Chelly (his brother), really experiencing these Games. How much does this mean to you to come up with this great performance for him? And was it for him?

Miller: I don’t know if it’s really for him but I wanted to come here and, I dunno, make myself proud, but ... (trails off)

Cooper: When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?

At this point Miller bowed his head, tears flowing down his face. Cooper, a silver medallist in the 1984 Games, tried to comfort him, but he eventually walked away.

Since then the Twitter-verse has excoriated Cooper and NBC, whose taped coverage of the super-G could have been edited to limit or exclude the interview. Miller, demonstrating a lot of class, has come to Cooper’s defense.

Interviewing is the hardest part of being a journalist. Research is easy, and while challenging, you can get information via public records. But it’s difficult to get someone to talk, even under less emotional circumstances.

We’ve seen it before – the TV interviewer shoving a microphone in someone’s face and asking how they feel as their house burns down or the reporter asking parent’s of a child killed in a plane crash about their emotions.

We feign innocence, claiming we know their thoughts. But do we really?

Maybe we do, but most likely not. We want to hear it from the person’s lips, their thoughts, fears, apprehensions, admissions and vulnerabilities.

We want to know exactly how they feel so that we can establish a bond. Cooper could have cut her interview off before that last question, refraining from asking about his brother until the camera stopped rolling or Miller had escaped the immediate emotions of competition.

She could have left us guessing, and perhaps that might have been the better part of valor. But as Miller’s tears flowed, I couldn’t help but think of people close to me who are no longer here to share in my life’s triumphs and failures, people I deeply miss. In that moment, I felt one with Miller.

In that moment, Cooper made Miller more than an Olympic athlete. She made him one of us.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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