Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

There Is A Time And Place For Everything, And This Is Not It

Hey!

It’s me.

I know. It’s been a while. About a month, in fact, since I last offered up any pearls of wisdom in this space. (Some might argue that as for the pearls, it’s been much longer than that.)

The last time I went this long between blog items, I supposed that the gap had not been caused by a lack of inspiration, or interest in writing. Plenty of subjects have jumped up in the last month and said, “write about meeeee!” But I found that most of them were worth about one Facebook status post. In this space, I average between a thousand and two thousand words per post. Maybe it’s because I look at these blog posts as surrogate newspaper columns. After all, that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, at about age 12 … a swashbuckling newspaper columnist. Three times a week and an expanded column in the Sunday color supplement! I don’t write mere one-liners. I write substance.

Or I try.

Also, well … the Winter Olympics.

Folks who have the misfortune to be connected with me on the local Book of Face will have noted that during Olympic fortnights … I, um, don’t get out much. For every televised ice dancing twizzle, every bobsled skid, every hockey line change, every eye infection, there Must Be A Status Post!!

So it might be hypocritical to suggest that it’s best to pause and reflect before posting on this blog, if I continually join the rest of couch-bound humanity in Facebook-reacting instantly to whatever is on the teevee right this second. Don’t I repeatedly remind my students that “not everything merits an instant verbal response”? I do indeed.

But there are times when it’s probably best to pause and reflect. To hold off. To keep the knee from jerking.

A couple of nights ago on the NBC Olympic primetime telecast, there was a moment of squirm that got my attention because it took none of those exit ramps.

 

American downhill skier Bode Miller had just rocketed his way down a mountain some miles outside of Sochi, Russia … posted a possibly-medal-worthy time … and then stood watching as skier after skier, about two dozen of them in all, followed him down the hill. However many seconds it takes for two dozen skiers to ski that course, times about a thousand, is how long it probably felt to Miller, until all the results were recorded and he could be sure that indeed, he was going to be able to stand on a podium and have a bronze medal wrapped around him.

And, as is always the case when such events are televised, before he could enjoy the medal-application, he was obligated to do one more tiny thing: get interviewed.

Former US skier Christin Cooper was in the “sideline reporter” role for NBC’s ski coverage that day. There are usually very few post-event interviews that will win awards with Edward R. Murrow’s name on them. And of those few, nearly none are conducted by people who are thrust into the role of journalist by way of erstwhile athletic prowess. So Ms. Cooper had a number of factors working against her to begin with. Not her fault.

Cooper asked Miller how this, his sixth Winter Olympic medal, felt different than the others he’d won.

Cooper: “For a guy who said the medals don’t really matter, they aren’t ‘the thing,’ you’ve amassed quite a collection. What does this one mean to you in terms of all the others?”

Miller: “This was a little different. 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.”

Miller was referencing a difficult subject: his younger brother, Chelone, died last year after apparently suffering a seizure which may have been related to a brain injury suffered in a previous motorcycle accident.

Cooper followed up on this – as a good journalist would, whether she’d had prior knowledge of this subplot or not.

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here. What’s going through your mind?”

Sadly, this was a clunker of a follow-up question. Regardless of whether the audience had been alerted to the emotional baggage Miller was carrying (and NBC had made certain that its audience had, in spades), a proper follow-up question might have veered away from generic cliché and toward more establishment of context. Help your audience. But Cooper isn’t the only sideline reporter ever to ad-lib an interview question that failed to rise to the level of Shakespearean prose.

At her question, Miller’s composure slipped. It took a long while before he could muster a reply.

Miller: [long pause] “A lot, obviously. A long struggle coming in here. And, uh, just a tough year.”

At this point, I expected Cooper to observe that the interview was probably right on the edge of over thanks to Miller’s imminent inability to find his voice. I also expected her to head for the vaguely gracious “congratulations on a terrific race” and throw it back to her two colleagues “in the booth” somewhere nearby. The cadence of the average brief post-race interview had been adhered to. Wrap it up, let the other two voices create an audio transition while the camera lingers on the racing hero for a couple of beats, cut to the final-results leaderboard graphic, and we’re home free.

None of that happened. Cooper continued. I, a veteran of numerous journalism classes and televised sporting events, froze. I had a sudden sense that this train was in danger of vacating the rails.

Cooper: “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?”

Miller: “I mean, I don’t know it’s really for him. But I wanted to come here and uh — I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.” [pauses; wipes tears from his eyes]

Okay, so we’ve really established that this is an Up Close and Personal Emotional Moment, the kind that network teevee completely adores. We have reached inside, past the Game Face of the Olympic athlete, and discovered that the athlete is in fact a human being, and does in fact have emotions, and we have witnessed them … in brilliant high-definition. Now we can wrap this up, at a level of only six out of ten on the Uncomfortable Scale.

No we can’t, apparently.

I heard Cooper draw breath, as if to speak again; and I heard myself, reflexively, and with complete lack of self-editing, whisper toward my teevee set, as if that would help, … “Oh my good Lord, please, back off!”

Time to stop being an investigative journalist – or whatever Cooper was in great danger of becoming. Time to be a sympathetic human. This is not 60 Minutes. You are not Bethany MacLean going after the Enron “smartest guys in the room”.

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

I can’t remember the last time I heard that much “dead air” on primetime network teevee.

Miller physically could not answer the question. He sank to his knees and hung on to the fence that separated the competition area from the press. Cooper’s voice could be heard whispering “…sorry,” but it was too late. By what felt like several weeks.

 

The online Twitter universe essssploded. My Facebook timeline did likewise. In the next few hours, both Cooper’s journalistic skills and her essential character were assessed equally harshly.

And I could have leapt to the blog machine and joined in; might have cranked out a critique of her performance that would have made her ears bleed, from nine time zones away.

But it was late, and I suddenly just wanted to crawl into bed (also, the better to get up at Absurd O’Clock the next morning and watch the all-important US/Switzerland men’s curling round-robin match) (don’t judge; I’ll go another 47 months without this stuff). I opted to let it rattle around in my brain a bit and go find a transcript the next morning, so as to see if I’d heard what I thought I’d heard.

But as I closed down my computer, a thought occurred to me: there are at least two possible scenarios at work here.

One is this: Christin Cooper took whatever meager journalistic skills she may have had … and set them aside, seeing an opportunity to instead become no better than a gossip columnist, digging in on that one gap in Miller’s armor and ensuring an emotional scene that would make great headlines or great video. Lookee: I got a scoop.

Another is this: the suits in the corner offices at NBC Sports knew about Bode Miller’s brother way ahead of time. And they decided that if they could possibly find a way to bring that subplot fully into focus somehow – in any way that had more impact than any mere pre-packaged human-interest video segment – then they should do so. Great for ratings. And word was sent down to the broadcast personnel assigned to Miller’s races: “this is what we need. Get it.”

It could well be the latter scenario, since what I was watching that night was the re-broadcast of video that had aired live, earlier that day. Sochi is nine hours ahead of 30 Rockefeller Center. The producers and editors at NBC had up to nine hours to look at the raw video, make a couple of assessments, and decide what they wanted to air during primetime. And it’s possible, even likely, that somebody at NBC Sports (whose humanity license needs to be revoked) watched Cooper’s interview at least once, probably twice, maybe even thrice, and decided … “it’s perfect. Run it. As is.”

Welcome back to this week’s episode of “I Can’t Decide What’s Worse”!

The arguably hyperbolic backlash against Christin Cooper’s performance may or may not have been misdirected; but it was definitely not insignificant.  Because it came from decent human beings who instinctively felt the need to push back against a broadcasting decision which might have been placing “great teevee” higher than simple decency.

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February 18, 2014 - Posted by | blogging, entertainment, Famous Persons, journalism, media, sports, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. well said!

    Comment by Joe McCoy | February 19, 2014 | Reply

  2. Bravo! There is a more insidious third possibility in support of the “generate great teevee” as opposed to actual journalism: someone was “feeding” her the questions through an earpiece. But of course, I love a conspiracy theory if I can speculate on one! 😀

    Comment by Heidi | February 20, 2014 | Reply

  3. […] I already opined in this space about Bode Miller’s post-bronze-medal-winning-race interview experience. Later in the week, I […]

    Pingback by What Have We Learned?: Sochi Edition « Editorial License | February 25, 2014 | Reply


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