By Milton Kent
Dec 1, 2009
Historians one day will note the precise hour that the American sports media circus wagon lost its wheel as Tuesday at roughly 3 PM ET.
That’s the time when ESPN aired live a press conference about a $164 traffic citation.
That’s right: a press conference over a traffic citation went out worldwide on a reputable sports network. And who says you’re not getting a bang for your cable/satellite TV buck?
All jokes aside, the feeding frenzy that has become the Tiger Woods Escalade escapade would be as hilarious as a Chris Rock concert if it didn’t shine a light on what sports journalism has become and open a frightening window into what the business may evolve into.
When the fury over just what happened near the end of Woods’ driveway last week finally comes to a merciful end, the media profession may be lucky to come out of it with a shred of dignity. The early results don’t look promising.
To be sure, much of this is of Woods’ own doing.
By virtually every measure, Woods has magically turned what should have been a momentary curiosity into a full-blown international incident by saying little beyond a milquetoast statement on his Web site that raised more questions than it answered.
“This would be a whole different situation, once he got out of the hospital, if he could have issued a statement. Then things may have played out differently,” said Kevin Sullivan, a former White House communications director for George W. Bush, as well as the former media relations director of the Dallas Mavericks.
“But the story was completely shaped by the fact that everybody else was telling it. He let the story be defined by the TMZs of the world and by the traditional media as well.”
The template for dealing with issues like this, albeit on an issue of far greater import, was written 18 years ago by Magic Johnson. When the Hall of Fame guard stepped before microphones in November 1991 to disclose the HIV that he had “attained,” Johnson essentially provided the three-part game plan for dealing with a matter of great public interest that happened off the playing court: Tell your story. Tell your story first. Tell the entire story. End of issue.
Instead, Woods followed a path laid down by his good friend and fellow icon, Michael Jordan. Both have been relentlessly reticent, if not downright hostile about disclosing anything about their personal lives, in good times or in the rare occasions when things have gone bad.
Once upon a time, that approach could work in large part because sports reporters in particular, and the media as a whole, wanted little more than the score of a game.
Those days are gone, especially for athletes like Woods and Jordan, whose profiles expand beyond the barriers of mere sports stardom. Now, a sports figure may find himself just as likely to appear in the first block of the 6:30 network news as in the first block of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter.
And the gasoline that has been poured onto the fire has been provided by tabloid publications such as the National Enquirer and US Weekly magazine, and tabloid Web sites like TMZ.com.
TMZ, emboldened by their success in reporting events surrounding the June death of Michael Jackson, has attacked the Woods story with a particular bloodthirstiness. In the process, fearing that the public won’t draw the distinction between conventional news sources and the tabloids, traditional gatekeepers have gone full bore into the story as well, televising, for example, press conferences about traffic tickets.
Save us, Oprah. Save us from ourselves.
“You take news outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN which do their share of enterprise journalism and investigative reporting and news-breaking,” said Sullivan, the founder of his own public relations firm. “Now, all of a sudden, you have TMZ.com in the kitchen with The New York Times and everybody else.”
In the end, there may be only one person who can both rescue Tiger Woods’ image and salvage the reputation of American sports journalism: Oprah Winfrey. If the nation’s talk goddess would only convene a sit down with Woods and his wife, Elin, where we could get the whole truth (or at least more truth than we’ve received to this point), we could all get on with our lives.
Save us, Oprah. Save us from ourselves.