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Tiger Woods and the end of journalism as we knew it

Posted Dec 15 2009 5:00am
Sometimes, in this Great Recession we're in, I think of the state of journalism, particularly the coverage of the Tiger Woods saga. I can't help but remember back to 1992, back when I was a reporter for The Delaware State News, back when a dead end was really dead.

I think back to my first encounters with what I call "journalism of desperation," where reporters and newspapers will do anything to hold onto their jobs, even if it means making a spoiled golfer's sex life your front-page poster boy.

Forget about taxes, war and poverty; a woman swinging a 9-iron at a billionaire athlete will move those stories to the inside pages every time.

Back in 1992, even small newspapers had that mentality, and they never really lost it. The reporters and editors all had that dream of making it big, even if it meant lying, cheating and exaggerating stories until they didn't even resemble news stories anymore. They were merely blogs, just without a cyberspace to give them a port.

Back in 1992, just like now, jobs were sparse, but everybody kept telling me that I was lucky, because I had one (sound familiar?). But it was hard to convince myself of that, especially when I walked up to my apartment window, looked out and saw the crowded truck stops, the farm houses and a big NASCAR raceway that was the largest thing in Delaware's capital city, if not the whole state.

It was hard to convince me of that when my dream of doing meaningful journalism, the kind of stuff that ended the Nixon presidency, was shattered by a 25,000 circulation daily, long before Tiger Woods ever won a tournament. It was shattered by a newspaper where most reporters I knew quit into unemployment rather than wait for a better job offer that would get them away from the editors with the tabloid-inspired ideas.

It's been reinforced by news coverage of Tiger Woods, coverage that really is no better than the stuff the Delaware State News did 17 years ago, when we joked that the newspaper's motto should have been this: "Every story is a good story, especially when it's bad."

As a child, I envisioned looking outside the window of a New York newspaper and seeing the glistening facades of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Instead, at our office in Dover, Del, I saw the cornfield that was never harvested, or so it seemed. There was a rail line that never had any trains. There was a crop duster that never really dusted any crops (yes, just like that famous scene from "North by Northwest").

I worked for a newspaper that still, to this day, does not have its own website. It still has the same design it had in the 1980s. It had its reporters writing front-page recipes. It substituted editorials for a "sound-off" column that included anonymous gripes from people in "Smyrna" and "Camden-Wyoming" that were borderline - if not fully - slanderous.

I felt so empty, and even useless. Just a few years earlier, I was a college journalism star at Rutgers. From 1990 to 1993, however, I was reporter covering something called "Levy Court" in Kent County, Del., run by a man who could say little more than: "George Schulz...he's a good man! Joe Biden...he's a good man!....George Bush...he's a good man!"

I'd go up to him and say, "Mr. Paskey, why did you open up a smelly sewage treatment plant in the middle of a residential community?" and he'd say, "Tom Davis, you're a good man!" and then walk away.

The editors knew this stuff was boring, so it's no wonder they pushed me to write stories I didn't want to write, the Tiger Woods kind-of-stuff that was more about projecting gabby headlines than making people's lives better.

One of them even went to an interview I had a with a woman whose husband served in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The editor took no notes; when we got back to the office, she not only wrote the story for me - she inserted the quotes, or her version of them. Some of the quotes had electricity, and some even tugged at your heart. But many of those weren't even said.

After a day like that, I often looked out that window, and saw Dover. In my mind, I'd see that view, that dead-end view, and I'd paraphrase what Capt. Willard said in the movie, "Apocalypse Now," when he looked out at the Army men, and the flat ricelands of Saigon, and saw despair.

"Dover," I said to myself. "Shit...I'm still in Dover."

As much as I loved being a journalist, I always wanted more. Ironically, I didn't care so much about the setting, or even the money. I didn't care if there was a cornfield or a skyscraper outside my window. I cared about making an impact, and being in a position where I could bring about change.

From that apartment window, I felt far from that goal, perhaps as far away as the cornfields of Delaware were from the palatial headquarters of The New York Times. Now, 17 years later, I see the Tiger Woods coverage and, at times, I feel as far away as I did then.

I feel powerless, just as I did then, when I watched bogus quotes being insert into my story. I feel powerless as I watch the Woods coverage, realizing that journalism has little choice but cheapen itself, because Tiger Woods sells. With advertising revenue in the tank, what better way to sell your newspaper than to get the king of commercial endorsements on your front page every day?

I see the media lowering itself to the standards of that "sound-off" column, relying on nothing better than rumor and innuendo to drive the news. I see coverage that's repetitive and, frankly, getting so boring that I'd enjoy reading three recipes for Spam Surprise (an actual front page story from the State News) before watching another minute of "The Insider," and getting the latest dirt on Woods.

I feel powerless, just as I did in Delaware, when I couldn't stop the newspaper from publishing a story on a guy who was copycatting the Rodney King beating of 1991, claiming that the cops pounded him into the hospital. The whole thing turned out to be a lie, and I even suggested that to the editors. They printed it anyway.

That's not to say that I haven't made progress in 17 years. I certainly have much more influence now than I did then. I'm in a better position than ever to teach, and to shift attention away from the spoiled golfer of privilege who has never met an endorsement deal he didn't like, who has been wearing that Nike-swoosh hat on his head since he was old enough to crawl.

I've always found, to coin another Vietnam-era cliche, some light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it involved the stress associated with family, and having kids, and everything associated with the life, I always found a way around the dead end. I always found a way to move to a higher level, and put myself in a better position than I was before.

Now I'm not writing about vocabulary-challenged politicians in the middle of Delaware. I'm the transportation writer at The Record and The Star-Ledger. I write stories that got traction during the 2009 gubernatorial election, and one of them may have played a role in Governor Jon Corzine's election defeat.

I teach courses in traditional and digital media at Rutgers University. Now I walk up to the window in my house and see pretty houses on an old, suburban New Jersey street, and see Rockwellian holiday decorations lighting the street, and I no longer feel that pit I had in my stomach, when I felt like my career was going nowhere.

Now I feel an empty feeling, but it's no longer one of hopelessness. It's one of ambition, the feeling of being on the cusp of something good, even great.

But when I sat in the Trenton bureau last night, and I watched the tabloid T.V. shows pop on with their wall-to-wall coverage of Tiger, I couldn't help but get that old sense of helplessness back. I looked at the story I'm writing and I start to think: Who's going to read it? Will they care?

I forget about the accomplishments I've had; I can only think about where journalism is going, and it's not good.

"Tiger," I thought to myself. "Shit....it's still Tiger."
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