The Dignity of The Grieving

In April of 2013,  Nathaniel Kinsman Ever Chelone Skan Miller, better known as Chelone or Chilly, a snowboarding athlete died after a seizure that had been in a series of seizures he experienced after a traumatic brain injury as a result of an accident. Chilly, 29 years old at the time of his death, had Olympic aspirations. He wanted to represent the US as a snowboarder in Sochi Russia in 2014. And he wanted to do it with his brother, Bode Miller.

The story of Chilly’s death had been mentioned in a profile done by Tom Brokaw with most of the interview airing being with Miller’s wife Morgan when it came to the subject of Chilly’s death. Morgan told through tears how the deeply the death of his brother had affected Miller and how she had seen Miller at his most vulnerable since the loss of Chilly.

Miller’s had a disappointing Olympics. He had the best times at qualifying for the Men’s Downhill only to not medal there. He also failed to medal at the Super-Combined, where he was the defending gold medalist from Vancouver. So, when he had a not clean but great run on the course in the Super G yesterday, he was skeptical he would keep the lead. NBC frequently scanned back to Miller and his wife Morgan with Miller not thinking his run was good enough. Ted Ligety who was out of the race stood with Morgan and they broke it down together. Ted conceded he didn’t think the run was good enough to win but had a harder time discerning if it would be good enough to reach the podium at all. In the end, Miller tied another skier for a bronze medal and his team USA teammate Andrew Weibrecht took the silver medal. Miller, one of the oldest medalists ever, whose Olympics looked to have been over had a great night on the slopes.

And then it happened, Christin Cooper, NBC’s reporter on the slopes, got her interview with Bode Miller. And it crashed and burned. Cooper persisted in asking questions about Chilly and his death. Reading the transcript is not enough, watching the interview, one can see Miller becoming increasingly emotional and having a more and more difficult time answering the questions and yet Cooper persisted and pushed on until Miller broke down in tears and fell to his knees, finally ending the painful interview.

And audiences, like McKayla Maroney, were not impressed. As this Buzzfeed article shows in multiple tweets people reacted to the interview gone horribly wrong by an overzealous reporter. In the end, it was her delivery and her insistence to hammer in questions about Bode’s late brother that people reacted strongly and negatively to. Her last question was even rushed in to try and get a response before Miller broke down completely. Where most people would have stopped after one question, she hammered in four despite Miller’s reaction. But to add insult to injury, the interview had been filmed earlier and shown in primetime giving NBC plenty of time to edit it but they chose not to. As a result, they gambled, and lost with their audience who felt that Miller’s grief should not have been on public display. And to pour salt onto the wound Cooper’s questioning ripped the scab off of, Matt Lauer chose in late night to bring the interview up in his interview of Weibrecht and Miller.

The interview itself should have centered more on the race, instead it became a poor attempt at a human spectacle interest piece. Although, as the Buzzfeed piece points out, Miller came out and stood up for Cooper in light of the backlash, it doesn’t make what happened right. What happened to Miller is a result of voyeur “journalism” that celebrates invading people’s most private moments, particularly their heartbreak. It’s not Miller’s first rodeo with it and it’s been around awhile.

Way back in 1995, a young model in south Florida named Krissy Taylor died suddenly and tragically in her teens of causes that are still widely speculated on but which were blamed on undiagnosed asthma and her use of the over the counter drug Primatene mist. Krissy’s family continues to maintain a website almost 20 years later dedicated to the daughter, sister and aunt they lost. In it, under the heading “what happened” Krissy’s mother Barbara writes this about the weeks after her daughter’s death:

Dealing with the death of anyone close is difficult in itself—let alone your own child—but if you add the elements of celebrity and the press, you have a formula for disaster. All those TV camera crews, with their satellite dishes in your front yard, wanting to interview “the family.” Knocks at the front door at 5 and 10 p.m. for live news broadcasts. Did they have any idea what hell we were going through? Live with this for a week, and having to sneak out the back door to go anywhere, then you’ll know. Then, we got a phone call from the police saying that the media had demanded they release the 911 tapes! What more could they put our family through? She wasn’t murdered—there was no foul play. Why did they have to air our desperate attempts to save our daughter’s life on the national news?

Barbara Taylor writes how in her moment of grief, she was hounded and chased making mourning her young daughter that much more difficult. And it appears that in 20 years, not much has changed in how the media dis-allows private mourning.

Grief is something that is, of course, endured in stages we are told. The length of each stage varies greatly from person to person and even among individuals depending on the situation. As a friend recently said, “Everyone grieves differently.” Some of us are more prone to public displays while others want privacy and to cry it out in peace if need be. When we invade someone’s privacy or cause them to grieve more publicly than they planned to we are dishonoring their dignity as an individual who has the right to grieve in whatever way he or she needs to. And it would appear now that people have said enough is enough about forcing others to re-live terrible moments in their life for our amusement. It happened and it’s sad, we don’t need to have the person re-live the grief for us.

And many in the world of journalism are doing some soul-searching and self-examination about this practice. In a piece on PBS News Hour’s site shows this well in this quote from NYT’s Richard Sandomir:

The controversy raises the question whether the interview was a case of bad media ethics with Christin’s persistent questioning. New York Times columnist Richard Sandomir said that though Cooper’s first question was a “relevant area to pursue” since Miller mentioned his brother first, it should have been the last question that should have been asked about him.

“Emotion is a real and honest element of athletic triumph and defeat,” Sandomir wrote. “And you don’t want a network to tell its journalists to stick to soft questions when interviewing the winners. But in this instance, Cooper and NBC lacked the sensitivity to know when enough was enough.”

Sandomir hit the nail on the head. Lacking any empathy and certainly sensitivity, Cooper pursued the path she was on. And NBC, in viewing Miller as a commodity, not a human being, chose to air the interview 20 hours later. Miller deserved dignity but instead was treated as a cash cow. Those grieving deserve dignity in that time. The fact that Miller stood up for Cooper when he really didn’t have to is admirable, but again, does not excuse the fact that it happened and shouldn’t have. And NBC declaring vindication in light of Miller’s support only fuels their desire to reduce human beings with emotions down to dollar signs. So, yeah, we still have a ways to go before we can claim we respect the dignity of grief and those grieving.

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