The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Tiger Woods: The end of the tabloid media virgin?

December 4, 2009 |  1:51 pm

When a big story breaks, turning a much-admired celebrity into fodder for the rapacious tabloid media, it's fascinating to watch how all sorts of eye-popping peripheral scoops surface, propelled by the momentum of the original explosion.

Eltigre It's happened again with the Tiger Woods extramarital sex scandal. The New York Post has a doozy of a story, claiming that the National Enquirer had photos of Woods "getting busy" with a woman in an SUV. But instead of publishing the scoop, the Enquirer killed the story in return for the golfer agreeing to pose for a rare cover story for Men's Fitness, a magazine owned by the Enquirer's parent company, American Media.

Now that's what I call media synergy! The Post quotes Neal Boulton, former Men's Fitness editor in chief, saying he left the magazine as the deal was going down. "We were going to do a [quid pro quo] with America's favorite sports star, just to get his name on the cover of the magazine. That was too much for me. That's when I high-tailed it out of there."

Woods appeared on the cover of the August 2007 issue of Men's Fitness, even though he had an exclusive deal with rival Conde Nast's Golf Digest to serve as their "playing editor." (The Post contacted American Media chief David Pecker, who calls the story "absolutely untrue.")

The Post scoop turns up in an equally delicious post by Newser's Michael Wolff, the acid-tongued Vanity Fair media critic, who does a great job of getting to the nub of our fascination with La Affaire Woods. He argues that what we really want to see (in all celebrity boondoggles, not just in the current Woods case) is the collapse of the finely-tuned PR machine that serves to protect celebs from scrutiny, controlling our perceptions of every high-profile movie star, TV actor, hip-hop musician or sports figure.

As Wolff shrewdly points out, the highest drama in a tabloid news story rarely involves the celebrity's original blunder. It's about the suspense that unfolds between the initial explanation for the event and the final elucidation of what actually occurred. As Wollf puts it:

"The real tabloid story occurs in the time between exposure and when the subject gets his response strategy in place. That is, all the tension in the storyline derives from how long it takes the celebrity to get his PR line down. That's the reality-TV aspect of all this: In the midst of great stress and panic, can you get your PR operation to work? ... The essence of that PR operation is to deny reality. To project control, calm, cool ... to, by force of will, spread a blanket of dullness over all salacious details. The essence of the media play is to focus on and to enhance a hyper reality. What we really want to see is the subject writhing on the hook. We want a demonstration of as much public pain and abject humiliation as possible."

It sounds almost sadomasochistic, but that's the nature of our twisted fascination with celebrities today. We treat them as royalty, worshiping them from afar, but when they are found to be less than perfect, we love to see them knocked from their lofty perch. Tiger Woods never asked for celebritydom. It came with the territory of being the world's greatest golfer. He often seemed chilly and remote -- he certainly wasn't the kind of guy you'd want to grab a beer with (like John Daley, who seems to enjoy his beer a little too much). But is being chilly and remote a sin? I don't think so.

Even if Tiger were as jovial as Santa Claus, he'd still be in trouble today. He was a god, but as soon as he proved to be as imperfect as the rest of us, he was fair game for whatever dirt could be thrown at his feet. Ask everyone from Tom Cruise to Alex Rodriguez. We love to build you up, but we love to knock you down even more. 

Photo: Tiger Woods. Credit: Tannen Maury / EPA.

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