Lost in the Woods
How the mainstream media too often dropped sourcing standards and blindly followed the lead of the tabs and entertainment Web sites during the Tiger Woods extravaganza
By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter for the Washington Post.
On December 6, the British tabloid News of the World published a sensational story about the unfolding Tiger Woods scandal. Headlined "Tiger Had Me in the Rough," the article was an exclusive interview with Mindy Lawton, a 33-year-old restaurant manager from Florida who described having "rough" sex with the golfing great during an affair conducted while Woods' wife was pregnant.
The story provided copious and intimate details, including what kind of omelet Woods likes for breakfast. But the News' reporting was suspect on several levels. For one thing, the newspaper offered no independent evidence that might have corroborated Lawton's account--no incriminating text messages, no e-mails or voicemails from Woods to Lawton. Nor did the story cite a single eyewitness who could attest to even incidental elements, such as Lawton's claim that Woods had visited her restaurant with his family. And, of course, there was no comment from the other party allegedly involved in the relationship, Woods.
Most suspicious were some of Lawton's direct quotes; she referred to Woods as a "sportsman" and a parking lot as a "car park," British locutions unlikely to have been uttered by a Florida restaurant manager. It didn't help the story's credibility that it was published by the News of the World, one of Britain's racier tabloids, which often pays sources for stories. (The paper did not respond to a request for comment about
Yet none of it seemed to matter. Within hours of publication, Lawton's name was flying around the Internet, landing not just on blogs and gossip sites that have never made any claim to journalistic integrity but in mainstream media outlets that do. The Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others, eagerly picked up the News' account, as did NBC's "Today" Show. Dozens more publications cited no source at all in recounting what Lawton had to say. None of the outlets that picked up the story appears to have spent much effort asking a fundamental question about it: Was it true?
Perhaps it didn't matter. By then, the news media was in full frenzy over Woods' philandering, and Lawton's tawdry tale fit with other "revelations" that were emerging almost hourly. In all, 18 women eventually came forward (or were identified by others) as alleged mistresses of the golfer.
(Comedian Andy Borowitz captured the flavor of the coverage with this dead-on dispatch on the online Borowitz Report: "In one of the largest mass demonstrations in recent history, over one million women claiming to have had sexual liaisons with Tiger Woods marched on Washington today.")
With few exceptions, all of the purported witnesses were treated with the same credulousness by the news media as Mindy Lawton.
There's no question that the news media got the direction of the Tiger Woods story right; Woods himself confirmed its hazy outlines a few days after the National Enquirer broke the story of his relationship with a New York event planner, Rachel Uchitel. In two brief and vaguely worded postings on his Web site, he acknowledged unspecified "transgressions" and "infidelity," thereby shattering his carefully crafted image as an upstanding family man. As some of his sponsors headed for cover, Woods took an indefinite hiatus from golf to sort out his personal life.
That, at least, is what is known for certain. But almost every other widely reported aspect of Tiger's tale rests on a wobbly foundation, unsupported by on-the-record sourcing, official documentation or direct observation--that is, the methods that journalists are supposed to employ to separate fact from speculation and substance from gossip. Much of what was reported relied instead on supposition, guesswork and innuendo, often sourced back to problematic stories like the News of the World's Lawton story or online reports of dubious provenance.
For all its lurid aspects, the Woods scandal may have constituted a watershed in American journalism: A major news story in which many "respectable" news outlets ditched traditional newsgathering methods and standards of fair play and piggybacked on aggressive but not always accurate tabloid reporting. The distinction between "mainstream" and "tabloid" may never have been so blurred as it was in the whirlwind of reporting on Woods.
The media circus surrounding Woods bore many aspects of those of yore, such as ones surrounding the O.J. Simpson saga and Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But the Simpson and Lewinsky paroxysms occurred in what now seems like a quainter, more primitive media era--before the Internet's maturity, before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. America's celebrity-media infrastructure has grown wildly since then, with the addition of dozens of full-time gossip-mongering sites like TMZ and RadarOnline, among others. And while there have been plenty of sex scandals in the contemporary media environment (Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Mark Foley, John Ensign, Larry Craig, and on and on), only Michael Jackson's child-molestation case of 2005 has involved someone as famous as Tiger Woods. Jackson and Woods are among the few people on the planet who could incite global media interest because they are among the few people so well known across the planet. Which explains why news sources all over the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, etc.) were covering the Woods story almost as eagerly as the New York Post.
The Tiger Woods extravaganza suggests that the mainstream media's standards "have gotten a lot shabbier," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has watched the press while working for four presidential administrations. "You're slipping."
Months removed from the Woods explosion, key facts still are missing from the story, and formerly accepted ones look dubious. What, for example, led up to Woods' car crash in the early-morning hours after Thanksgiving? The established narrative--widely reported by the tabloid and mainstream media alike and seemingly certified as fact by a "Saturday Night Live" skit--was that Elin Nordegren had attacked her husband after learning about one or several of his affairs. The timing and circumstantial details certainly fit; the car accident occurred just after the National Enquirer's revelation of Woods' alleged sexual relationship with Uchitel.
The domestic-abuse angle persisted despite two denials from Woods ("The stories...that physical violence played any role in the car accident were utterly false and malicious," he wrote on December 2) and in the absence of any independent verification. There was no police report asserting domestic battery, no eyewitness accounts and no statements from the doctors and nurses who treated Woods after the accident. Nordegren has made no statement of any kind.
In fact, TMZ, the celebrity-scandal site that has been the source of many Woods "scoops," reported on December 30 that Florida highway patrol officers who met with Woods three days after the incident claimed "Tiger's appearance gave them no reason to believe he was the victim of domestic violence." This contradicted TMZ's own reporting several weeks earlier. In a November 28 "exclusive," for example, the site reported, "Tiger Woods did not suffer facial lacerations from a car accident. They were inflicted by his wife, Elin Nordegren." TMZ repeated the abuse claim in several follow-up stories, including one reporting that Woods had told a TMZ source that his wife had "gone ghetto" on him just before he crashed his SUV.
Dozens of news outlets cited TMZ's November 28 report of domestic violence. But a search indicated only two other news sources--the Guardian of London and WESH-TV in Orlando, which broke the December 30 story about the highway patrol--carried any mention of the authorities' doubts about Nordegren's alleged beating of Woods. In a statement to the press on February 19, Woods said his wife hadn't attacked him.
TMZ has been on the money before, such as with its scoop about Michael Jackson's death last summer. But relying on TMZ's reporting, as many in the media did in the Woods case, can be risky. The domestic violence story may not be the only thing TMZ got wrong. Among other things, it reported on December 3 that Woods might be paying Uchitel for her silence; the next day it said no money had changed hands. It initially said Nordegren confronted Woods about Uchitel, precipitating an argument immediately before Woods crashed his car. It subsequently reported that the pre-crash argument was actually over another alleged mistress, Jaimee Grubbs. It then reversed field again and said Uchitel, not Grubbs, was the source of the purported domestic squabble. (TMZ did not respond to requests for comment.)
Was Woods addicted to painkillers at the time of his accident? Gerald Posner, The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter, suggested as much, without substantiation, and CBS' "The Early Show" and NBC's "Today" show invited Posner on to repeat the claim. Did Woods offer his wife some kind of financial inducement for her silence and continued matrimony? Yes, said numerous news sources (the Chicago Sun-Times, US Weekly, the New York Post, the Boston Globe, Posner again on The Daily Beast), although there was little agreement about how much she would supposedly earn (anywhere from $5 million to $80 million). Was the couple leaving the country and moving to Sweden? Foxnews.com said so. Was Nordegren about to file for divorce? Dozens of news organizations vouched for it, with some sources claiming the filing would occur by the end of the year. Yet Woods and Nordegren remain in the United States, and no divorce action has been launched.
The wildest and most unsupported claims involved the number and identity of Woods' mistresses. Some media outlets--the Orlando Sentinel, New York's Daily News, the Philadelphia Daily News, Toronto's Globe & Mail and dozens of others--kept a running tally, periodically adding names and photos as the women surfaced, based on little more than the women's say-so or the word of anonymous sources. The list eventually grew to include two porn actresses, whose motivation for being associated with such a high-profile sex scandal was never seriously questioned.
The emergence of so many would-be paramours should have prompted journalists to ask a few questions, says Alicia C. Shepard, National Public Radio's ombudsman (and for many years a regular contributor to AJR). "Where were these women before the National Enquirer broke the story?" asks Shepard, who teaches media ethics at Georgetown University. "Why were some of them so easily available for interviews now? Shouldn't that make reporters suspicious?"
Reporting on extramarital relations or sexual misconduct is admittedly a tricky business; by definition, one or both parties would prefer to keep the news quiet. But journalists have been able to establish sexual misbehavior among the famous and powerful before. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's relationship with Donna Rice came to light in 1987 when two Miami Herald reporters saw her emerging from Hart's house early one morning; they later obtained a picture of Rice sitting on Hart's lap. Florida Rep. Mark Foley's leering messages to a young congressional intern were substantiated by transcripts obtained by ABC News. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's visits to a call girl were confirmed by a federal wiretap investigation that was unearthed by the New York Times, which won a Pulitzer for its reporting. The smoking gun in Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was a stained blue dress. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's undoing came after a reporter for the State newspaper spotted him in the Atlanta airport, a week after he disappeared for what his aides had said was a hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Only Uchitel and Grubbs' involvement with Woods seems at least circumstantially solid (for the record, Uchitel has denied having an affair with Woods; Grubbs has claimed a relationship with the superstar golfer). The National Enquirer spent weeks developing its story on Uchitel, submitting its sources to polygraph tests and at one point observing Uchitel on the same floor of the hotel where Woods was staying in Melbourne, Australia. Grubbs also offered something more than take-my-word-for-it assurances. In an interview with US Weekly, she produced a series of text messages allegedly from Woods and a voice recording of a man who sounds like Woods urging her to remove her name from her voicemail message, lest his wife hear it.
Among the mainstream media outlets most eager to pass along claims of dubious origin was the "Today" show, the highest-rated morning program on television. The program aired "exclusive" interviews with two women, Jamie Jungers and Cori Rist, who claimed to have had affairs with Woods. The interviews were perhaps most striking for the lack of skeptical questions; not once did interviewers Meredith Vieira (who spoke with Jungers) and Peter Alexander (who questioned Rist) ask the women a question that might have cast doubt on their assertions.
The thrust of "Today's" reporting on the scandal was to report what others had reported. In a single news report on December 7, for instance, Alexander cited TMZ twice, News of the World's story about Mindy Lawton, "Saturday Night Live" and The Daily Beast's report about Woods' alleged addiction to prescription drugs. Another Alexander report a few days later cited TMZ (about the presence of a moving van at Woods' estate the day before); US Weekly (about Woods and his wife attending "grueling" counseling sessions); and a story in "a celebrity-news Web site owned by AOL" that Woods was considering moving to France. The next day, citing People magazine, Alexander said Nordegren "has had enough and plans to leave Tiger Woods." (NBC News declined to comment for this article.)
The mass reporting of poorly sourced (or completely unsourced) information may reflect a hyper-competitive news environment that places a value on speed rather than accuracy or reliability. Given how quickly and widely "news" travels in the Internet age, news organizations can be quickly left behind unless they, too, report what's already "out there," even if it turns out to be wrong.
"The line that defines what's news is constantly moving, and it's making traditional legacy news outlets nervous," says Sharon Waxman, who has covered Hollywood for the Washington Post and New York Times, and now runs her own entertainment-industry news site, TheWrap.com. "They are constantly getting outflanked by little Web sites like TMZ. But it's really lazy and irresponsible to just throw something up there because it drives traffic. You can't let yourself get dragged into a story just because it's salacious and sensational and someone else is reporting it.... A lot of half-assed stuff gets published that way in every category, not just Hollywood."
There was one bright spot in the otherwise dismal media picture. Some leading newspapers certainly didn't ignore the Woods story, but their coverage was marked by relative restraint. Papers such as the New York Times were generally cautious about reporting the names of the parade of women who claimed to have had affairs with Woods. During the month that the Woods story was in the news, the New York Times mentioned Jaimee Grubbs just twice; it never mentioned Rachel Uchitel at all, according to a Nexis search. The Washington Post mentioned Uchitel in six articles and reported on Grubbs' connection in six others. The Los Angeles Times barely bothered; it had only two references to Grubbs' role in the scandal, and none about Uchitel.
So why did so much of the mainstream media so assiduously follow the tabloid lead on the Tiger Woods story? Perhaps because of the way another recent sex scandal played out. In 2007, the National Enquirer reported that former Sen. John Edwards had had an affair with a videographer who worked on his presidential campaign, Rielle Hunter, and had fathered her baby. Edwards repeatedly denied the allegation, dismissing the story as "tabloid trash."
In the absence of definitive proof, and faced with choosing between a tabloid newspaper that acknowledges paying sources for stories and a would-be Democratic presidential nominee, many prominent news organizations sat on the Enquirer's revelations, even as the story circulated broadly around the Internet. When Edwards finally confessed to the affair in an interview with ABC in August 2008 and more recently to paternity of Hunter's child, the revelation embarrassed those news organizations that had chosen not to report the story.
What changed between the Edwards and Woods stories? NPR's Shepard suggests the first scandal incited the firestorm over the second: "The John Edwards story forced legitimate news organizations not to ignore Tiger Woods. The mainstream media used to dismiss that kind of story. Now they do so at their own peril. The floodgates are open. Anything goes."
But it isn't quite that simple, says Bonnie Fuller, the former editor in chief of US Weekly. The circumstances surrounding the two scandals were quite different, says Fuller, who now heads a celebrity news site called HollywoodLife.com. She notes that several events happened in rapid succession to propel the media's pursuit of Tiger--the National Enquirer story, followed by the SUV accident, Woods' visit to a hospital, Grubbs' disclosure of text messages and a voicemail, and Woods' vague public confession. "There were no issues of denial," Fuller says. "There was clearly a story there." Conversely, Edwards vehemently disputed that he'd had an affair, with little to disprove it other than the National Enquirer's account. "It pretty much ended there," she says.
Barry Levine, the National Enquirer's editor, doesn't see much cause and effect between the Edwards and Woods sagas. While he remains frustrated by the media's delayed reaction to his tabloid's Edwards story, he, like Fuller, believes the attention to Woods was fueled by chain reaction--the Enquirer's scoop, the mystery over the post-Thanksgiving SUV crash, Woods' statements and the emergence of all the alleged mistresses. "We cracked it open," Levine says, "but others followed. We put it out there, but the rest of it would have come out, maybe in days, maybe in a few weeks."
Levine does think, however, that the Enquirer's timing may have played some role in how quickly the Woods story built. The newspaper was ready to publish its story the week before Thanksgiving, at a time when Woods was out of the country. In the face of legal threats from Woods' camp, it delayed publication for a week to do additional reporting and double-checking. The story finally appeared after Woods had returned home to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with his family. If the Enquirer had published a week earlier, the alleged domestic confrontation between Woods and his wife that triggered the SUV accident might never have occurred, changing the story's trajectory, he says.
Levine finds himself surprised, appalled and somewhat amused by the way much of the mainstream media handled the Woods scandal. The Enquirer's original story, he notes, took months of reporting. It involved many hours of interviews, polygraph tests, stakeouts, document dives and travel. It was checked and re-checked. But many members of the MSM, he notes, exercised no such care in reporting subsequent aspects of the story. "It would have taken us a couple of years to properly investigate each of these women's claims as thoroughly as we did the first" woman's, Levine says. "The stories were all over the place. There was just some outrageous coverage."
That's right. The editor of the National Enquirer doesn't think much of the way the "respectable" media covered Tiger Woods. Anyone paying close attention would concur that he has a point. It might be that the biggest scandal to come out of the Woods affair wasn't the one about a golfer. It was the one about the news media.