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Hunger for scoop in non-stop news cycle allowing Tiger Woods to control the story

It’s one of the six major trends the Project for Excellence in Journalism unearthed in its exhaustive study of the news media in 2009:

Thanks to the spread of technology and our instant-yet-continuous news cycle, newsmakers are gaining more influence over the reporting process than ever before, controlling the first impressions the public receives as journalists’ emphasis shifts to breaking news.

And there may be no better recent example of that than Tiger Woods’ pair of five-minute interviews, doled out like bits of sugary candy to a news media hungry for the next Woods-related scoop.

Never mind that the time constraints alone kept interviewers from the Golf Channel and ESPN from really doing their jobs. Pressured to cover a four-month scandal in five minutes, they let Woods slide on a few outlandish statements and declined to bring up many more – sounding more like earnest counselors than probing journalists.

As the broadcasts of the talks unfolded Sunday night – conveniently scheduled during the conclusion of NCAA championship basketball games and the final hours of the nation’s landmark passage of health care legislation – I kept wondering one thing:

Why is Woods doing this?

The traditional reasons for such a display – assuring the public you’re explaining everything and putting it behind you to avoid a media scrum – won’t be achieved in a five-minute talk.

And with Woods’ insistence on sticking to many of the answers he gave during his February mea culpa press conference (refusing to talk about the details of the November car crash that set all this in motion, for instance), there wasn’t much new material unearthed, either. The headline I most often saw – his admission that he was “living the life of a lie” – was a dog bites man newsflash of epic proportions.

My theory: Woods and his people can sense that public interest is flagging a bit, and are trying to run out the clock on the scandal. By offering press conferences that aren’t press conferences and interviews that give no real time to be interviewed, he appears to be forthcoming while sparking waves of coverage that annoy increasing numbers of news consumers.

Perhaps, by the year’s end, people will be so tired of hearing Woods’ name, they won’t care whether he finally tells all to Oprah.

My other theory: This is about control.

Since news of his many infidelities first surfaced, the golf legend has made it plain that he intended to handle the scandal on his own timetable in his own way – despite the many public relations professionals who urged him to adopt a different, more direct strategy.

These five-minute talks seemed the most public prying such a private superstar could stand; the only questioning he might allow for something so embarrassing, ubiquitous and sordid.

(Which makes you wonder: did super consultant and former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer quit Team Tiger because his name was sparking more stories, as he claims? Or because the only person who really handles Woods’ public relations strategies is Woods?)

Regardless, these interviews seemed a sad demonstration of the control Woods retains over reporting on his end of this story. The cynic in me even wonders whether CBS’ decision to turn down the interview, which they said stemmed from the restrictions, also was influenced by the fact that the network couldn’t air the talk until after an NCAA game they were broadcasting on Sunday — well after ESPN and The Golf Channel’s footage would have been broadcast.

And even as I watched these talks unfold, I felt questions bubbling up that I wish either reporter would have found the time to ask (perhaps Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman could have spent less time on the Buddhist bracelet he was wearing.)

I wanted to know:

— Are you worried that rehab may affect your game? Does any part of you fear that what you did was necessary to stay on top of your game?

— Is one reason you’re talking now about endorsements? How many have you lost and what will it take to get them back?

— At least one news outlet said your representatives persuaded the National Enquirer to scuttle a story on your infidelities in 2007 in exchange for a cover story on sister magazine Men’s Health. Didn’t you suspect you had a problem then?

— Why is this interview so short? Why won’t you sit down with an interviewer for longer than five minutes? Are you worried this will make it look as if you’re trying to hide?

It seems, if journalists really were allowed to ask any questions, queries like these might have elicited better answers than the rehash of his February statement.

But in a media world where the subject of a hot story has so much control, perhaps that doesn’t matter anymore.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.



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