As Christin Cooper prodded a tearful Bode Miller to talk more about the loss of his younger brother, until he doubled over sobbing, NBC's audience read her as callous and exploitive, unctuously determined to satisfy a network that hopes to wring as much bathos out of Olympic athletes as possible.
Kelley Cooper watched the scene in front of a TV in Idaho, and it felt terribly familiar. Less than three years ago, she endured the most unbearable sort of grief, the pain that trails the death of a child. Christin flew in from Colorado to stay with her. She listened. She encouraged her big sister to talk, to cry, to think nothing of how it all looked or sounded to other people.
"She came and lived with me for a week, just to help me through, and that was hard for her,'' Kelley said. "She was really present with me, and that's a really difficult, uncomfortable feeling, right? It's not easy.''
Christin wrote the obituary for her niece. It said that Glenn Cooper died when she was only 19 years old, traveling the country by rail with her dog, Pickit. On a stop in Minneapolis, the dog leapt into the Mississippi River. Glenn dived in to rescue her pet, and the current carried them both away.
Only eight months before, Christin and her husband, Mark Tache', had lost Mark's nephew, world-champion surfer Andy Irons, to a heart attack at age 32. They were close to him.
"She got her husband through that loss, and she certainly got me through mine,'' Kelley Cooper said by phone.
Since the interview that left him doubled over in anguish, Bode Miller has come to Christin Cooper's defense more than once. He has known her for a long time. She is a 1984 Alpine skiing silver medalist. NBC hired her as an expert analyst, and she's an outstanding one. She's not a reporter in the traditional sense. She is part of Miller's world. She knows what being on those mountains feels like. Miller has known her a long time, and his affection for her came through in his first tweet, after it became apparent that a public rage had started to build.
"Be gentle with Christin Cooper,'' he wrote. That didn't stop the anger.
People began marinating in it.
Kelley felt for her sister's interview subject. She had been where Bode Miller's grief took him and understood it the way her sister would know how he felt the instant he pushed off to start an Olympic race.
"It's that place in your gut, and I could feel that rising up in him, and I thought 'Oh God, I know where you are,' '' she said. "And I know he's been through it before. It's not pretty, but it's good, healthy grieving. That's how you're then able to move on through time, get through it. You go to that wrenching sorrow again and again until it gets shorter over time and it's not as deep a crevasse.''
I can understand why witnessing that kind of grief on TV made viewers uncomfortable and frustrated with NBC, but judging by social media reactions, many were furious. They blamed Cooper without reservation. She didn't decide to put a camera behind the mixed-zone barricade and follow Miller's full collapse, the most graphic piece of the interview, then show it on tape delay. That was the network's call.
At most, Christin Cooper made a mistake, guided perhaps by NBC's inclination toward the maudlin. She does not deserve the fury directed her way, and she did not, as countless stories by ostensibly professional journalists state, make Miller cry. Anyone who believes that has never experienced grief and would be useless to anyone going through it. Grief does not go into hiding because people scrupulously avoid the subject.
Plenty of people try to fend off the feelings with alcohol and drugs. Or rage. Bode Miller cried. It's an almost Olympian feat just to be sad. It can feel like wobbling on the edge of a cliff. Even fear doesn't do that. It holds us back.
The story of Bode and his brother did not really fit the network's much-parodied template, in which the death of a 90-something grandparent two years prior purportedly maintains a grip on the athlete's emotions through the Olympic cycle. Bode and Chelone, a snowboarder, hoped to be together in Sochi. Chelone was only 29 when he died last spring. The story is as relevant as Tiger Woods collapsing into the arms of his caddie, sobbing after his 2006 British Open win, only a couple of months after his father, Earl, died. It's as newsworthy as Michael Jordan on Fathers' Day 1996, lying face-down on the floor of the United Center, clutching a basketball and sobbing after his Bulls won the NBA title, Jordan's first since his father's murder in 1993.
Woods and Jordan dictated the terms of their public displays of sorrow; they weren't being interviewed at the time. But Miller mentioned his brother at the outset of his brief interview with Christin Cooper. That didn't make him "fair game,'' but it indicated that he wanted to discuss the issue and how it felt to him in the moment. In such situations, the same guidelines applies to a journalist and someone supporting a person in grief: Draw the person out.
A microphone and cameras will remove a lot of the trust, but when Kelley Cooper watched her sister interviewing Miller, she remembered how Christin wouldn't cut her off in the rawest moments after Glenn died. Always, implicitly, she was saying: Keep talking.