Just because an individual is an acknowledged expert in a particular field doesn’t mean he is qualified to serve as a media correspondent.
True, a few professional football players have made the transition to sportscaster, and Olympic athletes have written books that topped the bestseller list. And it’s common during sporting events for networks to use athletes as sources or color commentators. But the boorish behavior NBC “correspondent” Christin Cooper exhibited during an interview with Olympic alpine ski racer Bode Miller stands as stark proof that prowess on the slopes doesn’t necessarily translate into skill as an interviewer.
Cooper was a member of the U.S. Ski Team in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and if an accident in 1983 hadn’t forced her to retire in 1984, she might have had a longer run. It’s clear she knows her sport; what’s not clear is whether she received any formal training in the art of interviewing, or any aspect of the media field. If she did, she had a lousy trainer, and she gave people everywhere another reason to detest “talking heads” and lump them all into the same unsavory category.
During the Olympics, networks always try to dredge up heart-wrenching snippets about the athletes in hopes of extracting from viewers a few tears, or at least a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, between events. For a Canadian skier, the inside story was a brother with cerebral palsy. Another skier was touted for her campaign to save cheetahs.
NBC found the perfect mark in Miller, whose younger brother tragically died last year. The topic had arisen several times already, so it wasn’t breaking news when Cooper brought it up Sunday; it was a tired old story line that had already been worked over by other interviewers.
Miller was shut out of the medals in earlier races, but managed to snag a bronze during Sunday’s Super G. That’s when Cooper showcased her spectacular incompetence and insensitivity. It wasn’t enough to ask once about the dead brother; perhaps expecting to get a new revelation on how Miller “felt,” she repeated herself several times, with Miller becoming increasingly emotional as the senseless inquisition continued.
Cooper’s first question was a variant of the most trite one an interviewer can ask: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here. What’s going through your mind?” His answer should have been a cue to move on to something more useful: “A lot, obviously. A long struggle coming in here. And, uh, just a tough year.”
But Cooper, perhaps not clever enough to come up with anything profound on the spot, pressed on: “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?” And finally, the most ridiculous of her blatherings: “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?”
Legitimate media members watching this display were as mortified as other viewers. Many joined the legions of outraged folks who were tweeting 140-character assaults on Cooper’s character. Others opined about it on blogs or follow-up news stories. For his part, Miller asked fans to be gentle with Cooper, and he was forgiving of what he regarded as a mistake. But that was no error; it was a time-honored talking-head ploy that went too far and backfired. Miller’s attitude even prompted some skeptics to suggest the pair cooked up the scene for effect – which also makes a statement about how the public sees the media.
Anyone wondering about the difference between a true media professional and a performer like Cooper should consider the kind of information sought. Is it something the public really wants and needs to know, or is it just grandstanding and sensationalism? In the case of sports, at least, viewers want to know how the athletes did, and whether they won. How they “feel” is of little concern. People like Cooper need to figure that out.