Grief in an Olympic Spotlight: Bode Miller’s Emotional NBC Interview

By on Monday, February 17, 2014

Twitter and media critics pounced last night on skier-turned-reporter Christin Cooper and NBC for airing an emotional interview with bronze medalist Bode Miller, where Cooper asked about his brother who died and his emotions. Miller handled the interview as tears slid down his cheeks and he finally bent over to cry with cameras rolling and Cooper sympathetically trying to pat his arm. Viewers saw him walk away weeping to his wife. The whole scenario should be used in training at journalism schools to help reporters understand when the lines are too far.

Al Tompkins from Poynter weighed in on the interview, and felt that Cooper wasn’t really listening to what Bode Miller was saying. Different questions could have given real insight into what makes Bode Miller tick, not just elicited his raw emotions. Tompkins noted that the tight video shot was done deliberately to zero in on emotion. Tompkins observed:

“the lesson here is not whether it is ethical or unethical to use video of an athlete crying. The question is whether you really listened to what the subject was saying. Ask questions that help the viewer / reader / listener go beyond the raw emotions of the moment to a deeper understanding of what is behind those emotions.

Roy Peter Clark puts it this way, “You know you are stepping over the line when the public’s attention turns away from what the subject is saying and turns toward what the interviewer is saying.”

I watched the interview and saw glimmers of my own life experience. My brother, US Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007 at age 22. I have done dozens of interviews over the years as an advocate for families of fallen troops and supported many bereaved families and trauma survivors in navigating difficult emotional territory in talking with the media. I’m no Bode Miller, but I do know that grief is part of life for a long time after you have lost a loved one, and that emotions can get the better of you, even at times when you think you should be your happiest.

Bode Miller has lived his life on a public stage for many years. This was not his first media interview and it was his sixth Olympic medal. A medal that he won after a hard year that included enduring the tragic death of his 29-year-old brother, Chelone Miller, a promising snowboarder who suffered a seizure.

Asking about his brother initially was relevant to the interview because Chelone’s death was part of Miller’s Olympic biography. And Miller starts off strong and references it, saying, “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.”

Cooper may have gotten on shaky ground by assuming a familiarity with Miller that  impaired her professional judgement. And Miller may have also lowered his guard, because after all, his interviewer was a well-known skier that he likely knew before this interview happened. But this was not a chat between friends. It was an interview for the exclusive NBC broadcast of the Olympic Games.

Miller looked to me like he may have been trying to soft-pedal the interview as he realized after mentioning his brother’s death out loud (and realizing that he was on thin ice emotionally), saying it was  “a long struggle coming in here. And, uh, just a tough year” when asked “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?” To me, that looked like Miller was trying to keep the lid on his emotions while answering Cooper’s question.  He did a good job. The NY Times thinks the interview should have stopped there, and I would agree. It was enough.

But Miller stayed in the interview and  Cooper continued, saying, “I know you wanted to be here with Chelly 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 used his brother’s nickname and the question pushed him a bit further and he began to leak – as we say in the bereavement community – with tears trickling down his cheeks as he tried to answer. He responded,  “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 my self proud.” And then he wiped away his tears.

Having now made an Olympic medal winner cry – it was time for Cooper to stop – but Cooper didn’t.  Now the interview became cringe-worthy. Instead, Cooper asked who he seemed to be talking to when he looked up in the sky before he started his run down the mountain and what was up with that. It was a question that would seem to have the power to take a grieving person over the edge. And that’s when he crumpled to his knees and leaned on the fence that separated them.

To me, Miller’s reaction looked like a classic grief burst. In the bereavement community, a “grief burst” is that moment when you thought you were having an “ok” even-keeled normal functioning kind of day when something happens – it might be a song, a smell, a thought, something someone says, an over the top experience like winning your sixth Olympic medal – and the emotion surges anew. The feelings can come in an emotional torrent as fierce and strong as what you experienced when you first found out your loved one had died. Their intensity can be bewildering and unpredictable, reducing us in what should be a shining moment to emotional mush – to our knees. A moment that reminds us of our mere humanity.

Bode Miller had a grief burst on camera during what should have been one of the most victorious moments of his life – surely a moment fraught with emotion, but doubly edged because of the year he had had and the loss he had experienced. Most of us, don’t have our “grief bursts” on network TV.  Most of us have them in private without cameras rolling, or we are forced to seek solace in bathrooms, cars or other places where we can be out of sight.

Miller’s emotional moment on network TV reminds us that grief and loss and human emotion – they are part of the makeup of who we are. Sometimes these feelings do come surging out – whether or not we will them to – and at the end of the day, we can be ok. Because the burst passes. It ends. Miller didn’t stay that way. Thank goodness. Most of us don’t.

Miller handled the situation valiantly – walking away finally from the interview – and even jumping to Cooper’s defense this morning after she was criticized for going too far, tweeting, “My emotions were very raw, she asked the questions that every interviewer would have, pushing is part of it, she wasnt trying to cause pain.”

The reality is that Bode Miller has had a way worse experience than having his emotions bubble out on network TV.  His brother died. At age 29. And that moment surely overshadows a little kertuffle over a  pushy reporter’s questions in a media interview.

Photo: Bode Miller talks with his wife, Morgan, after an emotional NBC interview and winning his sixth Olympic medal. Thanks to AP for the photo.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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