There are important things going on in the world -- climate change talks in Copenhagen, health care reform nearing its endgame, President Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan (and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize), and continued economic uncertainty, just to name a few. And yet The Washington Post is obsessing over a decidedly less important story: Tiger Woods' sex life.
Today alone, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz -- one of the paper's most famous reporters, and the nation's most prominent media critic -- devoted more than 1,000 words to Woods, under the charming header "Harem management." (Followed by a mere 95 words about Afghanistan polling.) And so it goes at the Post, where Kurtz has written more than 4,600 words about Woods since December 1.
And that's just Kurtz. During that time, the Post has also published the following Tiger tales:
- "Par for the coarse," by Kathleen Parker
- "The game Woods couldn't control; With his bunker mentality, golfer whiffed on scandal's P.R.," by Paul Farhi
- "A rough Tiger can't escape," by John Feinstein
- "Tiger's validation complex," by Eugene Robinson
- "If he's looking, Woods could find redemption at a historic golf course in D.C.," by Courtland Milloy
- "Tiger should take a page from senator's playbook," by Dana Milbank
- "Cheating? Hello, you've got e-trail; Technological gains may render one person extinct in adultery: The blindsided dupe," by Monica Hesse, which examined the pressing question: "In an age of iPhones, TMZ and standard-issue personal GPS devices, is technology killing the affair?"
I should note that I'm not even including the Post's Sports section in this tally.
Then there's the Post's recent online Q&As, including:
- Opinion: Dana Milbank on Tiger, Baucus
- Celebritology: Liz Kelly on Tiger Woods, more
- The Reliable Source: The Salahis, Tiger, Ken Cen Honors, Peter Orszag, Shawne Merriman, more
- Paul Farhi on pop culture: How should 'respectable' media cover tabloid news stories?
- Howard Kurtz discusses Tiger Woods, Stephanopoulos, Climategate, more
- Celebritology Live: Talk Tiger Woods, the other women, more: You've Been Served... a Heaping Plate of Gossip
Again: All that without even including Post sports pages.
It should go without saying that newspaper resources are finite -- even at a paper like the Post, which enjoys massive subsidies from its parent company's Kaplan Test Prep division. A reporter who spends his afternoon writing about a golfer is a reporter who is not writing about Afghanistan. A front-page article about Tiger Woods is an article that doesn't explain the basics of health care reform.
During his Q&A, the Post's Farhi defended the paper's resource allocation:
Paul Farhi: [W]e seem to have covered the health-care bill pretty well. I suppose one could make the argument that we would cover it BETTER if we dropped the Tiger/Salahi stuff and devoted more of our resources to it. But I don't know why we would want to do that.
Got that? Paul Farhi supposes the Post could cover health care better if it spent fewer resources on a golfer's sex life -- but why would they want to do that?
But The Washington Post needn't take my word for it (or its own ombudsman's word): The Post has a polling budget. If they're so convinced that they've covered health care "pretty well" -- well enough that they can devote extensive resources to figuring out who golfers sleep with -- let's see them prove it. I dare the Post to conduct a scientific poll of its readers, asking them a basic question about health care reform: According to the Congressional Budget Office, would health care reform that includes a government-run public insurance option increase the deficit or reduce it?
If the Post has done a good job of covering health care reform, a large majority of its readers should be able to answer that question correctly. It would cost just a few thousand dollars -- a drop in the bucket for a newspaper like the Post -- in exchange for which the Post would be able to brag about how great its reporting is, and how well informed its readers are. And the paper would get to throw the results in the face of the critics Farhi dismisses as "presumptuous and self-serving" people who "lecture" the Post about " 'serious' news" simply "to telegraph that they themselves are verrrrry serious people and that we should follow their sterling example." Won't that be satisfying!
What's the downside? There is none, unless, of course, the Post thinks that the results would embarrass the paper and undermine its claims to have done a good job of reporting on health care.
Back to Tiger Woods: Even if we stipulate that the Post has done a sterling job of covering health care and Afghanistan and the economy and everything that matters more than an athlete's girlfriends, I submit that would still not justify the paper's obsessive coverage of Woods.
There is limited public benefit to leering over celebrity sexcapades, and privacy implications -- for all of us -- that should be troubling. The more the media behave as though some people (politicians, actors, musicians, athletes) are undeserving of privacy in their private lives, the more it erodes the idea that any of us is entitled to such privacy. We can't expect the National Enquirer to take that into consideration, but it would be nice if "respectable" media like The Washington Post did.
It also might be in the paper's self-interest. After all, once the media decide that politicians, athletes, and entertainers have no right to privacy, how much longer will it be before the same applies to big-name journalists. Consider the standard justifications reporters give for covering sex "scandals" -- those involved are influential public figures, and they moralize about others or project an image that is inconsistent with their private actions. Which of those justifications don't apply to famous reporters?
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.