No one does TV celebrity profiles better than the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. And Sunday night, the producers of the most successful and celebrated news program in the history of television turned their cameras on Olympic champion Michael Phelps.
I enjoyed the segment and learned several things about Phelps that I didn’t know. The last part of that statement is high praise indeed given that every fact and factoid about Phelps’ life seems to have been published and analyzed at least 10 times. And that’s just in the pages of the Sun.
But that said, I have to ask whether the producers ever thought during the course of reporting the profile that maybe someone should have told contributing correspondent Anderson Cooper that the piece was about Phelps -- not him.
Cooper, whose full-time job is anchoring a nightly news show on CNN, certainly showed an anchor’s ego during his interviews with Phelps. When Phelps yawned during their conversation, Cooper informed him that he was "trying not to take" the yawn personally.
That is something I do not think the late Ed Bradley ever would have said. Bradley understood that in the greatest 60 Minutes profiles, the interviewer faded into the background as the star revealed himself or herself. The interviewer's feeling did not matter, except as testimony, perhaps, as to how an artist's work had affected the interviewer's life or worldview.
But Cooper sharing his feelings was only a warm-up for the moment late in the piece when the CNN anchorman got into swim trunks to compete in the pool against Phelps. It was done with self-deprecation and to make a point about how great Phelps is even though he says he’s in the worse shape of his life. But the pool buddy bit still had the feel of the correspondent saying, "Look at me. Look at me. Look at me."
I am not slamming Cooper or the piece. The producers cleverly focused on Phelps’ life since he won eight gold medals at the Olympics – a slice of his life over which they could have some exclusivity. And they touched a lot of bases – taking us from a look inside the refrigerator of Phelps’ $1.5 million Baltimore apartment to a backstage conversation between Phelps and his agent in which they agreed to turn down a $5 million endorsement offer without blinking. In fact, they were laughing about it. They can afford to with 300 calls a day inquiring about Phelps' interest in this or that business opportunity, according to agent.
As for the actual content of the interview, it was superficially interesting and certainly engaging. But never really revealing.
Cooper brings a sense of irony to almost everything he does, and as result, nothing seems very serious. It is a tone similar to that of Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show. But Stewart is a comedian on a comedy channel, while Cooper is working for a news operation on network TV.
So, what viewers got was a lot of lightly sarcastic, pleasant banter and conversation between the two. Phelps revealed that at 205 pounds, he is the heaviest he has ever been, but the implication was that it was no big deal. He’ll get back in the pool in January, and knock it right off.
Phelps said all the stories about him eating 12,000 calories a day were false. But he said this as he shoveled three breakfasts into his mouth – and laughingly put the real calorie count at 8,000 to 10,000 a day when training.
There were a couple of nice moments with Phelps’ mom, Debbie, who teaches at a middle school in Baltimore County. The most emotional came when Cooper told Debbie Phelps that her son says he owes everything to her.
But the part of her tearful reaction that the producers chose to use had Debbie saying, "You make me cry, Anderson."
Again, it was about Cooper – even at this tearful moment.
Enough already with the complaints. Maybe, Cooper knows the way to newsmagazine stardom far better than I do. After all, in many of 60 Minutes most talked about segments, it was something Mike Wallace said or did that everyone was talking about the next morning – not anything the person he was interviewing said or did.
We’ll see what the buzz is Monday morning – Cooper or Phelps? And if Cooper, is that a good thing or bad?