Commentary: Tiger Woods coverage shows holes in journalists' work

Chances are you don’t know who Charlie Pierce is.

Don’t worry, that’s a good thing.

Pierce is an award-winning journalist, an author, a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe sports section and a regular on numerous NPR talk shows.

And he’s the man who broke the Tiger Woods story – twelve years ago.

In 1997, Pierce wrote an extensive article on Woods in GQ that was later online in Esquire just before he won his first Masters, on the eve of his taking the golfing world, the sporting world and hell the world world by storm.

Pierce described the mystique surrounding Woods that would elevate him from merely being the best golfer to ever stalk the green to being one of the most admired people to ever walk the earth.

He also recounted the other side of Tiger — the extremely dirty-joke telling, f-bomb dropping, even allegedly skirt-chasing Tiger. The side that, up until a few weeks and a trashed Escalade ago, 95 percent of the world wasn’t aware of.

It was an honest piece, a portrait of a 21 year old preparing to take on a level of idolatry that would make Jesus Christ blush while being rooted firmly in what can only be described as the mentality of a Friday night frat boy five cups deep into the keg.

Which is a completely understandable mentality for a 21 year old to have, but not so much for a 33-year-old father of two.

But Woods’ indiscretions aren’t the issue here. Not for me anyways. The issue is what the story means for journalism in the world today.

In 1997, when Pierce’s story was published, Woods’ public relations firm International Management Group (IMG) vehemently attacked the piece. Renowned PBS host Charlie Rose, a respected journalist in his own right, boycotted it, declaring he would never read it.

It was as if the entire world wanted so hard to believe in the Woods brand that was being pushed on them that they willingly disbelieved anything contrary.

Whoopsie. Sorry Charlie.

These days we know better. But at the time the piece was published, IMG clamped down on Tiger. His personal life became shrouded in mystery to the point where you half-expected the next Dan Brown novel to be set in Augusta, Ga.

And, by all accounts, the journalists assigned to cover golf and Woods sucked the Tiger-flavored Kool-Aid dry.

It now appears that the public image of Woods was nothing more than an elaborate PR construction. But since the accident, some have noted that a number of stories had passed through journalistic circles concerning Tiger’s indiscretions. And some have asked why such stories never seen print.

An idealist would say journalists assigned to cover Tiger wanted so badly to buy into the persona of his perfection that they were willing to turn a blind eye to his personal indiscretions.

A realist would say journalists were watching out for their jobs, worried if they did report on Woods’ less savory traits, IMG would cut them off completely.

And a cynic would say journalists realized if they exposed Woods, the sheer tidal wave of interest he pumped into golf and the money that went along with it, some of which naturally ended up lining sportswriter pockets, would dry up.

It’s probably a bit of all three. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. But call me a cynic.

I get it. You don’t slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs.

But you’re telling me the governor of South Carolina can have an affair for nearly a year and the press picks up on it? That Eliot Spitzer can be a patron of prostitutes for just a few years and the press will be all over it?

But that Tiger Woods, arguably the most famous man in the world, can have multiple affairs for multiple years, and the fleet of reporters assigned to cover him was clueless about it? Are you kidding me?

One of two things happened: Either IMG had such a stranglehold on Tiger that the journalists surrounding him truly were in the dark. In which case, they probably should have tried harder to crack the PR shell instead of being contentedly spoon-fed.

Or multiple journalists knew about Tiger’s multiple indiscretions, but, for whatever reason (nudge nudge, wink wink), decided not to report them.

I know, on a scale of one to 10 in terms of importance, Tiger’s love life rates about, oh, a negative 50. But that’s why we should be focusing on the selective journalism being performed here.

Because what if the story wasn’t Tiger’s love life, with IMG insisting it was as pure as snow? What if the story had been about plans to reinstate the draft, with the government insisting it was a lie? Or about a new deadly strain of flu, with doctors insisting there was nothing to worry about? How would the level of shoddy reporting surrounding the Tiger story have affected those scenarios?

Or how about the economic crisis? What if irresponsible reporting was one of the steps leading to our Great Recession?

Any faithful follower of the “Daily Show” will know that this, in actuality, may be fairly true. Jon Stewart took financial news source CNBC to task last year for its handling of the financial crisis, mocking its reporters’ coddling of business executives and slaughtering “Mad Money’s” Jim Cramer for having insisted everything was fine even as the markets began to belly up.

Stewart has shrugged off the journalist label time and again. But he’s done what a good journalist should do. And if journalists won’t do it, well, leave it to the comedian.

That Tiger’s sordid affairs revealed celebrities cheat is no great shakes. What is truly dismaying is a certain culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” journalism that seems to be emerging in some corners of the media world that can lead to mistakes or errors of omission like the one we have here.

And if journalism truly is about providing a public service, and many journalists out there believe it is, then you’d better be prepared to own up to mistakes made.

Journalists who willingly turn a blind eye to the truth deserve to be called out for it, to be questioned for it, to be accountable for it. Just as journalists who call ‘em like they see ‘em deserve to be praised.

I realize this is all easy for me to say. I haven’t been out in the real world of journalism. I don’t know the ins and outs yet.

But I do know there are a few good rules good journalists abide by. Report the truth. Be honest but respectful. And don’t make yourself bigger than the story you’re reporting.

That’s why Charlie Pierce is a good journalist. That’s why, chances are, you’ve never heard of him.

Don’t worry — that’s the way it should be.

Editor’s Note: Although numerous news sources online cite both GQ and Esquire as having printed Pierce’s story, it was indeed originally published in GQ, as one reader commented. We’ve corrected it accordingly.

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