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What Tiger Woods’ crash means to mainsteam media and celebrity news

Here’s what worries me most about the Tiger Woods story.

Not the way media outlets are tripping over themselves to speculate about a possible sordid side to one of sports’ most successful, least-forthcoming athletes.

Not the way sports broadcasts usually devoted to excavating the latest Browns loss or Favre win have dug into the kerfluffle, like relatives salivating at a well-cooked holiday meal.

I’m fretting instead about two things: First, that this story feels like a bit of a turning point; the moment when we accept that today’s sped-up, always-on media environment virtually guarantees that controversial, confusing stories like Woods’ car accident will be misreported in the early hours and corrected as time goes on.

Second, it may be the final body blow to mainstream media’s attempts to pursue such celebrity-drenched news with even a modicum of restraint and ethics – mostly because the gossip outlets have totally owned this story almost from the first report.
 
Judging by the popularity of the term “Tiger Woods” on Google and Twitter, you likely already know the salient details:

Woods, golf’s most successful player and the sports world’s highest-earning athlete, got into a car crash in front of his home near Orlando that took out a fire hydrant, dented a tree, left the golf legend briefly unconscious and earned injuries police initially called “serious.”

Unfortunately for Woods, the elements of a media feeding frenzy were all there, ready to warp the newsgathering process like a haze of smog on a hot Los Angeles day. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be a loaded gun – pointed right at the heart of Woods’ famously private nature.

The initial police report of serious injuries sustained in a 2:25 a.m. accident ensured all media would be all in – sports jockeys, mainstream news outlets and gossip sheets alike (it seems now that the term “serious” was overstated; police say they always call injuries serious when someone is taken to a hospital and Woods’ representatives insist his injuries were minor).

The fact that it happened over Thanksgiving weekend when traditional news is molasses slow, lent kindling to the fire.

And gossip outlets blew the sparks into a flame, first with the National Enquirer’s reporting a few days ago that Woods may have had an affair, to gossip Web site TMZ.com reporting that an argument between Woods and his wife Elin Nordegren led to the crash.

Indeed, after the initial reporting of the crash, where quoting the police report led to mistakes, TMZ has seemingly owned the Woods story – from reports that police are trying to assemble enough material to request a warrant for Woods’ medical records to an eyewitness account of the crash filled with details on what the athlete was wearing and how paramedics tried to revive him.

But sources are not cited in most of TMZ’s biggest scoops, leaving open the question of how they were obtained and how accurate they may be. Left with few other on-the-record sources, many media outlets were forced to quote TMZ in their early reporting Monday, lending a force to their scoops media hasn’t seen since the site first broke news of Michael Jackson’s death in June.

Still, in Jackson’s death, more traditional media outlets, particularly the Los Angeles Times, worked hard to develop their own reporting and scoops. TMZ seems so far ahead on this one, the only scoop left is the one that either confirms or debunks what they’ve already reported.

(The Boston Herald, for example, posted a story online Monday afternoon quoting a Florida Highway Patrol officer denying that the department is seeking a warrant for Wood’s medical records.)

Which makes you wonder: What happens to coverage of celebrity athletes when the controversial personal stuff is outsourced to the TMZs and Enquirers on the world?

TIME magazine TV critic James Poniewozik pointed out artfully Monday that mainstream news outlets often fumble these stories, torn between a new audience that expects instant information on such events and a traditional audience that disdains such reporting on a guy famous for hitting a golf ball better than anyone else.

But I’d say there’s another reason why traditional news outlets don’t cover these stories well; they don’t necessarily have the same freedom to grant anonymity to sources or reward them as the tabloid outlets. So its small wonder TMZ can get the kind of eyewitness account the local newspaper cannot.

I’ve argued for years that these personal scandals are so intertwined with news that they cannot be ignored. Much as some sports commentators wanted to shrug off the Tiger feeding frenzy, questions about sponsorship, fan affection, his charity golf outing later this week, police treatment of certain sports celebrities and the possibility of a dark inner life most sports media missed made this a real news story in too many ways.

That’s also, by the way, why Woods’ own cryptic statement trying to take responsibility for the crash will not even slow the media melee (he said, for example, that his wife was the first to try and help him but didn’t address whether she also helped cause the accident). There are now too many legitimate questions left to dodge or stonewall – though by pulling out of his Thursday charity golf tournament and declaring no new events for 2009, he may buy himself some time.

Right now, however, Wood’s accident is a real news story with worldwide interest led by outlets with the least traditional reporting standards.

And that may be the scariest eventuality of all.

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 blogs.tampabay.com/media.


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