The NBC interview of Bode Miller in which interviewer Christin Cooper all but twisted Mr. Miller’s skis off to get him to cry about his dead brother was television at its most exploitative and absolute worst.
As I watched Mr. Cooper mangle Mr. Miller with her inappropriate questions about Mr. Miller’s deceased 29-year-old brother, Chelone “Chilly” Miller, virtually demanding that Mr. Miller break down in a flood of tears, I asked myself, “Has this woman no sense of propriety? Does she not understand the obtrusive nature of her questions? Has she no shame? Won’t one of her producers stop her?”
The defining characteristic of our humanity is the aura of human dignity that we all seek to preserve and maintain. Part of the reason that one trains for years to compete in the Olympics is the perception that public acclaim and communal victory will add luster to that dignity.
So when television goes after the dignity that accrues from being successful in public competition, or that is lost through failure, that is all fair game. When I was a boy I used to watch “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” which always started with an ski jumper wiping out and nearly killing himself. It was ugly. But no one complained. The man had jumped in front of a camera, and this was the result. If an athlete puts himself front and center to receive public laurels then he has to be ready to receive public opprobrium or ridicule.
Ms. Cooper had every right, had she wished, to ask Mr. Miller about his aging knees or history of injuries. It would have been uncomfortable but it was still within the realm of fairness.
But a man’s dead brother is out of bounds. It has nothing to do with the competition. Reminding a man of tragic loss in order to induce tears is the cheapest form of unprofessional conduct. If NBC wants ratings, let them go back to having people eat cockroaches on Fear Factor. But dead relatives ought to be off limits.
What this is really all about is a growing culture of human beings treated as ends to justify a higher means. Immanuel Kant said that the definition of morality is to treat every human being as an end in and of themselves. Immorality, it follows, is where the human person is subordinated to some imagined higher cause.
Judaism said the same thing earlier and in broader, more spiritual, and more universal terms. Every human being, the first chapter of Genesis declares, is created in the image of God. Just as the Deity is the highest to which nothing is subordinate, the same is true ultimately of a human life.
No woman wants a man to marry her because she has a rich father and no man wants a woman to marry him because he’s a good provider. People want to be appreciated for who they are rather than the accouterments with which they arrive.
Television, however, is different. It actively uses people for something called ratings. It will exploit people on reality TV shows in order to gain audience share, which can in turn be cashed in for advertising dollars.
When I hosted Shalom in the Home, a family repair show on TLC, I was aware of the potentially exploitative nature of the show. We knew that some families are so desperate either for attention or help that they were prepared to air their dirty laundry on national TV. It was therefore our responsibility, as creators and producers of the show, not to take advantage of these families by exposing their vulnerability. If we learned, for example, that a 14-year-old-girl was having sex with her boyfriend, while the story line would have enhanced the ratings, we chose not to air the information. The young woman’s privacy was more important than our ephemeral market share.
Things like this came up all the time. In the course of one episode we discovered that a family member had a cocaine addiction. The secret habit, aside from destroying their life, was decimating family finances. The addiction was a compelling story line and the family had signed their lives away with a release form.
But we were not in the business of destroying lives for profit. We had to live with ourselves after every episode.
In the end, the show lasted two seasons. It helped most of the twenty families that appeared. I look back at those two years as some of the proudest of my life.
Compare that to the mountain of reality TV drivel that infests are airwaves, making our culture more vulgar and boorish.
But while we might expect some of this from some of the smaller channels, we don’t expect it from networks with honorable legacies like NBC. We don’t expect it at the Olympics. And we don’t expect it at the moment of an athlete’s triumph, when they have every reason to celebrate their victory rather than literally brought to their knees in emotional defeat.
Bode Miller showed real class and dignity in supporting Christin Cooper even after this disappointing episode. NBC could learn from that example.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is listed by The Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.