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Media Notes: In Tiger Woods scandal, everyone kept their eyes on the golf ball

NOWHERE TO HIDE: With an almost nightly stage to himself David Letterman couldn't avoid addressing news of his affairs.
NOWHERE TO HIDE: With an almost nightly stage to himself David Letterman couldn't avoid addressing news of his affairs. (Cbs Via Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

How on Earth did we miss it?

With all the reporters, sportswriters, paparazzi and celebrity chroniclers chasing after the world's top golfer, how did Tiger Woods keep his extracurricular activities secret for so long?

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All those party girls and nightclub hostesses, who now appear starved for attention, and yet no tabloid got wind of the fact that Woods was scoring away from the links, again and again?

The episode exposes the dark secret of the boldface-names beat: It's a shared illusion, perpetrated by the media-industrial complex. We don't really know these people who are cloaked in the mantle of fame, despite their ubiquity on our front pages and television screens and laptops.

When Woods was driven to the sidelines by the relentless coverage of his tawdry affairs, the multiple mistresses seemed utterly at odds with his squeaky-clean image. But that image was a carefully crafted construct, since journalists -- and everyone else -- had little access to the player he truly was. He is a man with the extraordinary ability to hit a white ball into a little hole, but beyond that, we were all had.

The same could be said of the movie stars and rock stars and other stars who are surrounded by a phalanx of publicists, agents, lawyers and fixers. The ability of journalists to provide more than a blurry glimpse of stars' actual lives -- hey, we thought Rihanna was getting along just fine with Chris Brown -- is woefully limited.

But to admit that would be to undermine the very foundations of celebrity journalism. How else could we market all those profiles and cover stories, often based on little more than pretty pictures and quick hotel-room interviews? The media business caters to an abiding hunger for juicy stuff about Brad and Jen and A-Rod and Derek and Paris and Britney. As Us Weekly put it with photos of the famous carrying grocery bags, "Stars . . . They're just like us!"

Except, of course, for their big bank accounts and cloistered lifestyles and handlers whose job it is to make stars seem like kindhearted, down-to-earth folks. Those commercials urged us to "Be Like Mike" -- except the part, presumably, where Michael Jordan had an affair, paid the woman $250,000 to keep it quiet, claimed she demanded $5 million more, and wound up divorced.

"For many celebrities, it is really hard to penetrate when they choose to create a particular image and choose to live their lives very privately . . . in gated mansions," says Bonnie Fuller, the former Us editor who is now president of the Web site Hollywood Life. "Tiger created an image of himself that is 100 percent at odds with the reality of his life." But, she says, "eventually there will be cracks and it will come out. It's very hard to keep a giant secret life under the radar."

* * *

Sports figures enjoyed a certain immunity over the years, as fans were primarily interested in athletic exploits. But to rake in the endorsement deals, to get your own sneaker line or your face on the Wheaties box, you had to be -- or pose as -- a role model. Then came the steroids scandal, blackening the reputations of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, and the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case and the Marion Jones doping confession. Sportswriters could no longer just cover the stars on the field or on the court.

Unlike in team sports, a singular star like Woods could wall himself off from the press and pay no price. Photos of his Swedish model wife and their beautiful kids conveyed the message, and Woods could talk only about golf, when he deigned to talk at all. Call it the Tiger Trap: Who wanted to mar the image of a phenomenally successful African American athlete who seemed to have it all?


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