Friends in the Media? Ask Bode Miller About That.
The Winter Olympics have ended, so this is a good time to put into perspective the controversy about NBC Sports’ Bode Miller interview. Plenty has been written that emotional exchange, but here’s a refresher: Miller, 36, tied for the bronze medal in the men’s Super-G, making him the oldest Olympic skiing medalist ever. But the interview was not about that feat but rather about the untimely death of his younger brother Chelone, 29. He was questioned repeatedly about the tragedy and he broke down wept openly. Was it tasteless exploitation of an emotionally vulnerable athlete or was it good, human interest journalism? And, from a media training point of view, what can we learn from it?
Let’s start with the first question. I consider it exploitation. The piece as aired was also misleading and bordered on the brutal. Christin Cooper, herself a former Olympic skier, badgered Miller even after it was clear that he was going to break down and weep. And then she had the gall to reach out a comforting hand and caress his shoulder, as if that mitigated the intrusion she had just perpetrated. It was a scene right out of the movie Network News — you know, the one where the William Hurt character does an interview with a date rape victim and then, when the camera is shooting his close ups, tears up for effect.
But Cooper isn’t the principal offender. The gold medal for bad taste and lapsed judgment goes to Jim Bell, left, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage. Bell decided to air the interview and, worse yet, edited it in such a way that it appears that MILLER initially broached the subject of his dead brother. But if you watch closely, it is clear that he is responding to a question. Moreover, the interview was recorded hours before it was broadcast to the American audience so Bell could have elected to shorten it or not air it. As it turned out, he kept the video rolling long after Miller stopped talking to Cooper, following him as the skier staggered away and then dropped to his knees in the snow, continuing to cry. Bell’s defense that this was journalism rings hollow; the network wanted nothing more than to goad Bode Miller into an emotional display and then dwell on it for as long as it could — a full 75 seconds of nearly silent grief, in fact.
Does the name Jim Bell ring — forgive me — a bell? It should. He is the former Today Show executive producer who engineered the cruel firing of Ann Curry — planting negative stories about her, commissioning a blooper reel of her on-camera gaffes and then hosting a big, celebratory luncheon to toast her departure at Brasserie Ruhlmann, the high-end Rockefeller Center restaurant that doubles as a lunchroom for NBC producers.
There are two media mastery takeaways from the Bode Miller incident:
You Only Think You Have Friends in the Media
If You do Talk to the Media; Have an Agenda
You Only Think You Have Friends in the Media: Miller, ever the gentleman, used subsequent interviews to absolve Cooper. In fact, he noted that he and she had known each other for a long time. So he thought he was talking to a friend. But the friend, Cooper, chose to be an exploitive reporter first and a friend second. The lesson for all who sit down (or stand up) with a media “friend” is that the person with the microphone will likely opt for the job over the friendship. In point of fact, you may be a “friend” only because you are seen as a potential source. In media training sessions I tell clients that in an interview situation they should treat a reporter who purports to be a friend no differently than they would a reporter who is a total stranger: Be on guard, remember your interview agenda and stay on message. (Reporters are never off duty — something said in a friendly chat over dinner or at the bar can wind up on the air or in print just as easily as something said into a microphone or to a reporter busily scribbling notes.)
If You do Talk to the Media; Have an Agenda. This one is difficult if you ignore the first point. It’s hard to always keep an agenda in mind when you are talking with someone who you consider a friend. Additionally, athletes are hard-pressed to come up with an agenda for post-event interviews because they have no idea how the event will turn out. So more often than not, that post game interview consists of a mutually unsatisfying exchange that goes something like this:
“How did it feel to win/lose the game.”
“It felt great/terrible.”
“When did you know you had it won/lost?”
The answer here usually refers to a specific moment in the event.
Most of us don’t have to come up with an interview agenda in the short space of time between the end of a sporting event and time it takes to walk to the sidelines or locker room. I advocate that spokespersons always have a two-point all-purpose quickie agenda in mind for the pop-up interview. If you don’t have an agenda or can’t remember it on the spur of the moment, remember, the media doesn’t have subpoena power. You can always decline an invitation to an interview. And the way to do that gracefully, without looking like you’re running away from a reporter, is to say, “I’ll be happy to talk with you, but I can’t do it right now. Call me to set up a good time.” You’ve dodged the interview without appearing dodgy.
Finally, remember this, if you show emotion to the media, the media will show that emotion to its audiences. H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore Sun columnist in the 1920s wrote: “Any reflective newspaperman knows that it is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel.” NBC Sports proved his point by keeping the video of Bode Miller running long after he left the interview — following him as he wept, adding nothing to the story but emotion.
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