Tabloid rumors leak into mainstream coverage of Tiger Woods case

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The New York Times said only that Tiger Woods was "allowing an online rumor mill to produce conjecture and opinion," but the Sunday story never said what that conjecture was.

On the same day, The Washington Post quoted a state highway official in Florida, where the golfer's middle-of-the-night car accident occurred Friday, as saying he wouldn't "address all of the rumor and speculation" -- but the paper did not elaborate.

But if you read the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, TMZ, the National Enquirer or Star, or watch the cable news networks, you know exactly what many mainstream news outlets are dancing around. That may be changing: All three network morning shows and two evening newscasts joined the crowd Monday in repeating tabloid reports of an alleged affair.

This is hardly the first time that sexual allegations have oozed past the biggest media gatekeepers and into public view. The National Enquirer has linked the Woods accident to a supposed "cheating scandal" involving a New York "party girl" -- the same supermarket tabloid that persisted on its own for months last year in reporting on the affair between John Edwards and a former campaign aide.

One small problem: The woman in question, Rachel Uchitel, has denied any dalliance, telling reporters: "I resent my name being slung through the mud."

That hasn't stopped her image from being plastered everywhere, with such headlines as "Rachel Uchitel Pictures: Photos of Alleged Tiger Woods Mistress in LA" (Huffington Post).

This schizophrenic media approach has produced opposite accounts of what happened in that 2 a.m. car crash outside Woods's home. There is Woods's initial account, that he accidentally hit a tree and his wife, Elin Nordegren, rescued him by smashing the windows with a golf club. And there is the tabloid-driven version, that a jealous Nordegren inflicted the injuries with that very golf club.

Woods hasn't helped matters by canceling interviews with police and retreating into his bunker.

So far, Woods has limited himself to a vague statement taking blame for the accident and denying "the many false, unfounded, and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me." But that opened the door for "Today," "Good Morning America," "Early Show" and ABC's and CBS's nightly newscasts to mention the Enquirer allegations. The Associated Press joined in, contacting Uchitel and reporting her denial of any affair. Woods stuck with the zipped-lip approach Monday by withdrawing from his own golf tournament, the Chevron World Challenge, which he hosts.

The TMZ story relies on an unnamed source: "Tiger had a conversation with a friend . . . in which he said his wife had confronted him over reports he was involved with another woman . . . and that his wife scratched his face up during the argument." TMZ, which was the first to report Michael Jackson's death and questions about drugs supplied by his doctor, has consistently outpaced the mainstream press on celebrity stories.

The Enquirer, which like TMZ pays for information, has an on-the-record interview with a woman claiming to be Uchitel's friend.

"Obviously Rachel has gone into a damage control mode," Executive Editor Barry Levine told Fox News. Uchitel told various news outlets that she's met the supposed pal, Ashley Samson, only twice; the Enquirer has posted photos of them in skimpy outfits, mugging for the cameras.

"Truth is one of the many things that gets trampled today when boring facts can't keep up with the media's need to feed instantly and the public's appetite to be fed faster than that," writes the Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard. In Woods's case, he says, "What if it isn't true? How do we go back and fix that?"

We? Does that include those who didn't report the tawdry allegations in the first place?

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