In some ways, The New York Times is the same old Times, getting its knickers all wet at the prospect of Roger Federer’s return from a back injury and, no doubt, a possible Stuart Restoration, or something. The Times has already carried two Feddy articles, one announcing his return and the other exploring how he’s looking to old rival Rafael Nadal for inspiration in his comeback. Given that Rafa hasn’t been the same player since his 2013 return and that his rivalry with Novak Djokovic – or, for that matter, Nole’s rivalry with Fed – has been longer and more exciting, you have to feel that the Old Grey Lady and Feddy Bear are both grasping at straws.
These are not the best of times for The Times. The Paper of Record “backed the wrong horse” – to switch our sports metaphors – in the election, as many of us did.
Since then, its coverage has been at times overwrought, as if it were determined to be a journalistic Cassandra, preaching and prophesying when many don’t care.
But The Times’ problems go beyond being a voice in the maelstrom that is Trumpland. In the digital age, traditional print publications have struggled to remain relevant. And that has led them to report stories they might’ve once disdained.
“A Dropped Connection” – about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ strained relationship with his family – is one such story. It was originally reported on the site Bleacher Report and confirmed by Rodgers’ own family so there’s no question of inaccurate reporting from the family’s standpoint. Nor is it much of an invasion of privacy, as far as the family is concerned.
“Airing public laundry is not what I would have chosen,” says Aaron’s father, Ed, a chiropractor in Chico, Calif. who emerges as the sympathetic center – an American everyman and pillar of the community – in The Times’ piece. But, he added, “it’s good to have it all come out.”
But is it? To what purpose? Most sports journalism offers two kinds of family stories. In the first scenario, the family is the inspiration and mainstay of the athlete’s success. In the second, more likely – and, let’s face it – more interesting scenario, family tragedy, adversity and other challenges make the athlete stronger and better, though not necessarily happier.
This story falls in neither category and lacks their relevance. There’s a vague disconnect that gnaws at its heart and resists revelation. We don’t know what went wrong and so we are left to ask why we and a serious newspaper should care. It doesn’t appear to have affected Rodgers’ performance, which was tested by the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday’s divisional playoff. Nor has Rodgers commented on it. So why should we?
Family – at the center of my novel series “The Games Men Play” – is a mystery. It can break your heart. But the memory of its love can also succor you for a lifetime and, even, transcend death. Clearly, family, or the lack thereof, has a profound effect on each of us, the famous included. But to what extent should family be “public laundry”?
That depends on the famous son or daughter and the family. In the case of the Rodgers family, it’s a sad tale of growing apart under shadowy circumstances – in other words, the story of many families but nothing exceptional. As an editor, I would’ve said, Let be and move on.
In the case of American presidents, families are fair game but again only to an extent. It does The Times and fine writer Jill Filipovic little good to rail against Ivanka Trump as a faux feminist, in part because it defeats the point of feminism, which is a woman’s right to choose her life. If Ivanka can have it all, thanks to a life of privilege, more power to her. As I could not, would not be her, so I cannot envy her advantages. And I will not be taking on her heartaches.
But The Times’ hammering at the Trump children and extended family also betrays a desperation, a naïveté, a weakness. It’s naïve to think that Trump is not going to rely on his family for advice and support, or that he won’t be checking up on his sons and the business that he built – the business that is like a sixth child to him – regardless of his divestment, so let it go. I’m not suggesting that if a Trump hotel pops up in Moscow, that a potential conflict of interest shouldn’t be explored. What I am saying is that our focus should be on how his domestic and foreign policies will affect us and the world. And I predict his family and his business will be less relevant to those than his relationships with his cabinet, Congress and the Supreme Court.
This focus will also keep the mainstream media on point in an age in which it has played into the hands of its enemies with a perspiring brand of gotcha journalism. It’s less a question of the media going after the hard-hitting stories than one of tone.
Perhaps The Times can take a page out of its favorite Feddy’s playbook, which is being tested at the Australian Open in a couple of weeks.
Whether you like the elegant Federer or not, one thing is true: He never lets Nole, Rafa, Andy Murray or his other opponents see him sweat.