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Looking for Reasons to Care About Tiger Woods

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We in the respectable media are not interested in Tiger Woods’ car crash for prurient reasons. Oh, no. We don’t care about what a celebrity, but a private citizen, may or may not have been doing with his extracurricular time. Nor do we care about the rush of viewers and readers—like you there, who came to this article by Googling “Tiger Woods car crash affair rumors”—and how good it will make us look to our advertisers if we indulge it.

No, we care only for high-minded reasons. It’s about, um, the business impact of the story on the lucrative sports-endorsement business. It’s about, um, the ever-changing culture of American celebrity. It’s about, um, traffic safety! How many more innocent trees must suffer? Wait, no! It’s about the media coverage itself! That’s the ticket! So here is a blog post about the media coverage itself!

As you have guessed, the Woods story is about exactly what you think it is about: a huge celebrity, one of the most famous athletes in the world, suffers a mysterious mishap, gives an unsatisfying explanation, and rumors of personal scandal have filled in the void. A big star seems to be trying to hide something that won’t stay hidden, and people want to have at it. That’s it, and it’s that simple.

But whenever a story like this breaks, the first thing that gets exposed is the gap between media outlets, like TMZ, that unashamedly love this kind of story and cover it well, and more-traditional media outlets, who are either uncomfortable with or unsuited to the story, yet finally can’t ignore it.

These outlets aren’t blind, either to the news or to the interest in it. They are as capable as you of seeing, for instance, that the most searched term at the New York Times website is, as of this morning, Tiger Woods.

And yet the “serious” news outlets can’t just wholeheartedly revel in the human filth of the story. Not just for high-minded reasons, either: there are cold business reasons. As with so many things today, traditional media are caught between a newfangled audience, with new expectations, and an old-fashioned audience that expects old-fashioned standards of propriety.

This is as true of a celeb-gossip story as it is of, say, covering a controversial political issue. TMZ can gleefully go with the gossip, because its audience knows what it wants; the Huffington Post can take sides on healthcare reform, because it’s identified its audience. But a newspaper is, more and more, caught in between. Fail to satisfy the newfangled group, and they’ll quickly click elsewhere; fail to satisfy the old-fashioned group (who don’t want celebrity news on the front page, or news coverage with a point-of-view), and they cancel their subscriptions.

And, of course, like any media issue today, it’s complicated by money. Or the lack thereof. Journalism organizations (like Time Inc.) are losing revenue and shedding jobs left and right. How much attention can we afford to pass up in the name of purity?

So whenever a story like the Woods story emerges, one of the most entertaining aspects is watching the contortions the respectable media go through to put a sufficiently meta spin on it, to justify covering the hot topic (and not passing up all those free eyeballs), while appearing to be serious-minded, and not like all those other outlets just trying to pry into Tiger Woods’ personal life.

Like so many things that the trapped-in-between mainstream media does nowadays, though, this probably does it little good in the long run. They don’t truly satisfy, for instance, the reader who just Google-searched “Tiger Woods golf club affair car crash,” and wanted to learn something new about the incident. Meanwhile, to anyone who expects them to ignore this kind of story and focus on “real news,” their game is transparent.

What these half-measures do, more than anything, is convey the sense that the mainstream media is phony, inauthentic, that it lacks the courage of its convictions either to go all in and give the public what it wants, or take a bullet and stick to its principles. Trying to please everyone, it pleases no one.

That said, hope springs eternal in the mainstream media that there is a way of properly threading the needle when it comes to juicy stories like this one—that if they are simply self-aware and meta-referential enough, acknowledging these contortions will make the contortions somehow more acceptiable.

This has been my blog post on The Tiger Woods Scandal: Not Actually a Blog Post About the Tiger Woods Scandal But Really a Meditation On What the Tiger Woods Scandal Says About the Media. See how easy that was? Thanks for visiting, Google searchers!