Thanks to Google, Facebook, and the NSA, personal privacy has become almost too complicated to think about. On the one hand, we prize privacy more than ever; on the other, we throw it away.
The contradiction is old, and journalists—ancient specialists in the dark art of poking noses in others' business—probably know this better than anyone else. Hollywood indulges a popular stereotype by presenting them as rabid mobs chasing their quarry with mikes and cameras; or else acquiring info on the sneak and plastering it across front pages—careless, inaccurate, and indifferent to the human pain they inflict. Yet in other movies reporters are the heroes, the only characters on the screen concerned with finding out the truth.
I suppose just about everyone could agree with one thing: if you publicly invade the personal space of someone really sympathetic, don't look like a hack when you do it. NBC ran afoul of this rule of thumb halfway through the Sochi Olympics when its coverage of the Super-G slalom made millions of Americans (me included) squirm. At the bottom of the slope, reporter Christin Cooper corralled the two American skiers who'd just medaled in the event and asked painfully predictable questions.
The first was for Andrew Weibrecht, the unlikely silver medalist. "How does it feel?" she wondered.
"I mean, it's unbelievable," Weibrecht began, as surprised as everyone else.
Bode Miller stood beside him smiling, happy to see his teammate get his moment. But as Miller must have known—certainly everyone watching at home did—Weibrecht wasn't the story Cooper was after. Miller was.
Would America's most decorated Alpine skier, Bode Miller, win one last medal at his last Olympics? That had been NBC's storyline throughout the event. And now Miller had tied for the bronze. Cooper quickly forgot about Weibrecht. The camera bore in on Miller.
Whose smile vanished.
"Bode, such an extraordinary accomplishment, at your age, after a turbulent year, coming back from knee surgery, to get this medal today," Cooper gushed. "Put it in perspective for us. How much does it mean to you?"
"I always feel like I'm capable of winning medals," Miller said. "But as you can see in these Olympics, it's not that easy." He'd failed at Sochi in earlier races. "This was a really big day for me. Emotionally I had a lot riding on it." He said he hadn't skied his best but he was happy.
Cooper dug deeper into those emotions. The bronze was Miller's sixth Olympic medal. "What does this one mean to you in terms of all the others?"
"This is a little different," said Miller, and he said it was because at one time he'd hoped to be competing in Sochi with his brother Chelone, or "Chilly," a snowboarder. But Chilly had died of a seizure last October.
The viewing audience already knew this, NBC having made a point of telling us.
Cooper kept burrowing. "Bode, you're showing so much emotion down here. What's going through your mind?"
Why do these questions have to be so lame? I asked my wife.
They were having an effect on Miller. It took him a while to answer. "I mean a lot, obviously," he finally replied. "Just a long struggle coming in and just a tough year . . ."
"I know you wanted to be here with Chilly really experiencing these games," Cooper pushed on. "How much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him—and was it for him?"
"Uh, I mean, I don't know if it's really for him, but I wanted to come here and—uh—I don't know, I guess make myself proud, but . . . " He was out of words. He wiped an eye.
Still, Cooper didn't back off. "When you're looking up in the sky at the start," she said, "we see you there and it looks like you're talking to somebody. What's going on there?"
But Miller was done. His head slumped. Cooper touched his arm. Eventually, Miller managed to straighten and walk away a few paces, and then he crumpled again. NBC would say the next day that it understood "how [not why] some viewers thought the line of questioning went too far. But it was our judgment that his answers were a necessary part of the story." Yet Miller, after falling silent, remained fixed in the network's gaze for more than another minute—until his wife reached him from the crowd and held him.
Could anything be more inevitable than America's reaction to this exchange? It was immediately and repeatedly posted on YouTube, each posting attracting a surge of angry comment. Denunciations of NBC for its insensitivity rolled in from all directions. Keith Olbermann sneered and called the interview "mission accomplished." New York Times blogger Richard Sandomir said Cooper and NBC (which could have cut away) "lacked the sensitivity to know when enough was enough." Justin Peters on Slate said it was Miller's "near-reckless intensity" that had made him the "most successful male Alpine skier in American history" and had allowed him to medal in the Super G. Which was why NBC's "simplistic narrative" focusing instead on his lost brother was "so supremely stupid."
Nothing is as simple as it seems. If journalism has a golden rule, it might be this: never be afraid to ask a stupid question. Stupid questions can fetch wonderful answers. Print journalists are least afraid because it's easy to keep stupid questions out of stories while milking the answers for all they're worth; but even TV news can elide most stupid questions with nimble editing. Poor Christin Cooper was live, working without a net. It took Bode Miller himself to come to her defense. Cooper is a former Alpine skier and Olympic medalist (a silver in the giant slalom in Sarajevo in 1984), and the next day Miller told NBC's Matt Lauer that he's known her a long time and considers her a "sweetheart."
"I know she didn't mean to push," Miller said. "I don't think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be, and I think by the time she sort of realized it, it was too late. I don't blame her at all . . . It was just a lot of emotion for me. It's been a lot over the last year. You sometimes don't realize how much you can contain that stuff until the dam breaks, and then it's just a real outpouring."
Of course Cooper meant to push. She's a journalist. And to a journalist, especially a TV journalist, the more emotional the reaction the better. When Miller broke down, Cooper the friend might have felt embarrassed and protective, but Cooper the journalist must have realized she'd done her job. Now it really was time for her to shut up, and she did. I wonder if Miller, a champion because he skies so hell-bent down the slopes, sees any parallel between the risks he and Cooper were willing to run of being carried off a mountain with a broken neck and Cooper's present occupational risk of making a fool of herself on live TV asking the questions that are Olympics television's stock in trade. As Miller must recognize, even if he'd finished last Cooper would have put him on camera and asked pretty much the same questions: How do you feel? Was this day about Chilly? Their moment together was prescripted, decreed by the lives each chose.