Unsportsmanlike conduct foul on NBC

Many people have told us that, like us, their joy in watching Andrew Weibrecht’s silver-medal-winning ski run Sunday was dampened by poor sportsmanship on the part of a television giant. The NBC peacock seemed more like a vulture when it needled Bode Miller into crying after the race.

For those media that hadn’t already pre-scripted their story, Mr. Weibrecht’s brilliant, out-of-nowhere, super-aggressive, mistake-free run was the top news. A reporter’s primary job is to tell the audience things they don’t know, and Americans already knew a lot about Bode Miller thanks to extensive coverage of his success in four previous Olympics. But they knew little about the Lake Placid “Warhorse,” who, despite winning an Olympic bronze medal in 2010, has never finished better than 10th in nearly 100 World Cup races. It’s baffling. Ask away.

After the race, NBC reporter Christin Cooper, a former U.S. skier herself, asked one question of Mr. Weibrecht, and he gave a vivid, descriptive answer about what was going through his mind as he crossed the finish line.

Then she turned to Mr. Miller, the bronze medalist who had also skied a spectacular run. He brought up his brother Chelone “Chilly” Miller, who had died in April, and how this medal meant more to him for that reason. Ms. Cooper asked two follow-up questions, and tears started to roll down Mr. Miller’s cheeks. At that point, the man wasn’t saying anything new and was clearly upset; the reporter should have stopped. That, however, is when Ms. Cooper went over the top, asking, “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?”

Mr. Miller collapsed in sobs.

That appeared to have been the goal all along, considering how the network had staged its coverage of the super-G race. It began with a weepy feature on Bode and Chilly Miller. Then throughout the race, the Olympics’ official U.S. television network was monitoring Bode so closely that the KGB might have tipped their hats to a job well done. Before he raced, NBC’s cameras were trained on his wife. After he skied, the network constantly cut back to the couple, miking them to share their dialogue with viewers.

It was a pretty blatant show of exploitation, and it seemed to not be the fault of one reporter but a strategy that came down from the top.

“We understand how 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,” an NBC statement said afterward.

Mr. Miller himself supported the reporter, tweeting, “Please be gentle w christin cooper.

“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.”

NBC Olympics boss Jim Bell said, “We’re fine with it and the guy who was the interview subject was fine with it, so I think that should be the end of it.”

That would only be true if NBC and Mr. Miller were the only ones involved. No matter how accustomed Mr. Miller is to bad journalism, this was still disrespectful – not only to him but to the other competitors, whom NBC gave short shrift, and to the viewers, who don’t like to see someone picked on. It was foolish of NBC to bet its entire coverage on a single racer and then abuse its chosen one.

Most of NBC’s Olympic coverage is fine, and some of it is excellent. For instance, we would absolutely love John Morgan’s bobsled commentary even if he wasn’t a Lake Placid resident and Saranac Lake native. But the Bode Miller treatment was, to use the language of sport, a foul, and it’s not the first. It’s a continuation of a path this network has followed for a long time: toward celebrity worship and soap operas, and away from the natural suspense of “Which of these great athletes will win this event?” They even, for these games, carted out the 20-year-old Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga for an embarrassing multi-part series – another whack at a dead horse.

We in the North Country are fortunate to have the option of switching over CBC for coverage that is, in general, more geared toward what happens in the athletic events and less about pre-scripted, melodramatic story lines. The Canadians aren’t perfect, though; letting commentator Don Cherry go off about how much he hates Russians is in horrible taste.

Fouls like these should be penalized by the International Olympic Committee the next time it comes time to pick TV networks, giving monopolies to the highest bidders.

In the Olympic Charter are seven “Fundamental Principles of Olympism.” Principle 1 involves “the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Principle 2 aims at “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

If a TV network is to be the official Olympic one, it ought to live up to these.