Bode Miller had just tied for a bronze medal in the men’s super-G at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday, and it was time to be interviewed. NBC had already established Miller as an emotional story line, putting a microphone on his wife, Morgan, to hear her reactions to his races and having the couple sit for an interview with Tom Brokaw. He was being humanized – as the changed man, the family man, the mature 36-year-old whose brother had died last year.
This is the type of storytelling that lubricates NBC’s prime-time Olympic engine.
This time, the engine backfired.
It was not out of bounds for NBC’s Christin Cooper to ask a medal winner questions about his brother’s death. It was a relevant area to pursue, part of his Olympic biography. And Miller brought it up in response to her first question, saying that he had had “a lot of emotion riding” on the race.
She picked up on that quickly and asked, “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?” That probably should have been the last question about his brother. This was, after all, an interview with a great skier who had just won a bronze medal, the sixth Olympic medal of his career. He had done no wrong to be milked for more emotion than he wanted to reveal.
Cooper needed to strike a far better balance in her questions so that the takeaway for viewers would not seem as if she was badgering him.
Maybe the absence of detail in his answer – he said only that it had been “a long struggle coming in here, and, uh, just a tough year” – compelled her to go forward.
“I know you wanted to be here with Chilly experiencing these games; how much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him? And was it for him?” she asked.
Now she was sounding intrusive and maybe doubting his fraternal inspiration. It was one question too many, at least the way it was phrased. But it pushed Miller into a thoughtful answer – that he did not know if he had won a medal for his brother or to “make myself proud.”
He was holding up, but tears had started to trickle down Miller’s face.
He was being a stand-up guy, even if he was being pulled through a wringer.
Now was truly the time to stop. 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 gold medalist Kjetil Jansrud to plug in and change the tempo.
Instead, Cooper tried to comfort him, 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.
Dan Hicks, who called the super-G race for NBC, talked over some of this tearful imagery – unnecessarily – mentioning how Miller had seemed like a different skier than in the past and how his emotions “continued to flow out.” Yep, we saw that.
Emotion is a real and honest element of athletic triumph and defeat. And you don’t want a network to tell its journalists to stick to soft questions when interviewing the winners. But in this instance, Cooper and NBC lacked the sensitivity to know when enough was enough.