Privacy in an Age of Alternative Media? Not Even for Tiger
By Brian MacQuarrie '74
The great golfer Tiger Woods wants the news media to respect his privacy. Well, doesn't everybody? He's entitled to that wish, of course. And whatever is happening in his tightly shut home in a Florida gated community is a very personal matter that ultimately concerns only his family and possibly a few other intimately interested parties.
But Woods appears clueless about how the modern media operate as he, and his corporate handlers, have fumbled their response with misdirection, questionable outrage, and ambiguous apologies. For someone whose image has been burnished and presented with all the vanilla scriptedness of an annual shareholders meeting, the fallout from his middle-of-the-night pinball adventure with a Cadillac Escalade must be the stuff of sheer terror. Well, welcome to the 21st-century media landscape, Mr. Woods.
The mainstream media have done their thing, albeit with a little more enthusiasm, space, and time than I would have expected. But Woods is the world's first billion-dollar athlete, a hands-down global icon whose skill with a golf club might run second to his allure as a marketing symbol. And, then again, the circumstances of his run-in with a fire hydrant and a tree were so wacky, and initially inexplicable, that traditional news coverage was an editor's no-brainer.
Woods and his "people" have long believed that they knew how to handle the traditional media. Access could be shut off to any journalist who dared to muse about the golfer's fits of anger, his too-good-to-be-true persona, or his widely whispered penchant for attractive women. My colleague at the Globe, Charlie Pierce, incurred the nuclear-level wrath of Camp Woods, way back in 1997, when he wrote a jaw-dropping Esquire profile of the golfer that famously unveiled a proclivity for crude, sexist, and racially charged humor. After those bombshells hit the streets, the spin doctors at International Management Group, the keeper of the Woods image, expanded and reinforced the fortress.
For 12 years, the walls held fast. But social media are expanding at warp speed, and a seemingly incriminating phone message to a Los Angeles cocktail waitress, purportedly from Woods, was obtained by Us Magazine, the celebrity publication. Woods's apology for unspecified family transgressions came shortly after that report, which speaks to the reach of the public's obsession with celebrities and also the power of the once-fringe news outlets that give it voice. And those outlets, as Woods undoubtedly was belatedly told, are tireless and voracious.
The lessons in all this? Not that there are many skeptics left, but alternative media are more popular and powerful than ever, and will only become more so. (Their reporting also seems to be getting better, by the way.) The public's appetite for celebrity news is growing, and will continue to do so as long as reality TV and its ilk are a barometer of mass American tastes. And no one, not even the once-untouchable Tiger Woods, is fully protected in a society where cellphone pictures, text messages, phone tapes, and salacious emails make every move or word a potential target.
For a public that still longs to believe in heroes, we have yet another cautionary tale. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
For the last 20 years, Brian MacQuarrie '74 has been a reporter and editor for the ,
where he has covered a wide range of major breaking stories, including
assignments as an embedded reporter during the invasion of Iraq, the
Sept. 11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of a recently
released book, , a nonfiction work that chronicles a family's long recovery after a devastating murder. He lives in Boston.