LOOKING FOR NEWS IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

So what next? We post sportswriters in hotel lobbies? We assign columnists to the strip club beat?

What next? After two New York City newspapers repeatedly put photos of Yankee Alex Rodriguez and a blonde companion on their front pages last week, an invisible wall was crumbled, putting sports news in the company of the Star, Globe and National Enquirer.

How proud we must be.

“Stray-Rod” one New York headline read. “King of Clubs” read another. No, I do not condone Rodriguez, a married man, spending time with another woman in a steakhouse, bar or hotel. I also do not consider it news.

For one thing, if a story needs filing every time a married athlete hits a strip club, we need to set up bureaus in the bathrooms.

Besides, last time I looked, having dinner with a woman or walking through a hotel lobby was not actually against the law. It may suggest Rodriguez may have some serious explaining to do to his wife. But that’s his burden, not ours. Athletes are not elected officials. They are not clergy members. They swing bats and throw balls. They make us cheer or boo.

But if you set your moral compass by their behavior, the problem is yours, not theirs.

Sordid tabloid tales

Still, that didn’t stop the New York Daily News and the New York Post from running oversize photos of Rodriguez and a “busty blonde” sitting on barstools and walking across a street. The first photos, snapped by a paparazzo, covered front pages on days when war raged in Iraq and the Supreme Court made a controversial decision on equal rights.

As the nonstory was fed, along came photos of Rodriguez’s wife in a car, leaving her apartment building, and later Rodriguez and his wife together. No one involved spoke about the incident. It was a photo-only story – surrounded by paragraphs of suggestive words and innuendos. Rodriguez told the media he would not comment on personal issues and answered a question by saying, “I certainly don’t think this will be a distraction to our team.”

Of course, the fact that he was even asked shows why “media” now ranks with “ambulance chaser” in many people’s minds. If we snap pictures that don’t need to be taken, run them in places they don’t need to run, then ask an athlete if he’s worried about being a distraction, we are being more hypocritical than the big fish we think we’ve snagged.

But this is the age of YouTube and TMZ.com, the age when anyone with a phone camera is a reporter. The line between making news and creating news has not been blurred. It has been erased.

The Babe and his babes

Make no mistake. What the Daily News and Post did was a small but significant mark on the sports section time line. No, it’s not the first time an athlete’s love life is in the news. And yes, this kind of reporting is rampant in the entertainment world – does Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton exist if not for candid cameras and gushing gossip?

But for better or worse, there has long been an unwritten code to avoid such mongering in the sports writing world. What ballplayers did between games – as long as it wasn’t illegal – was pretty much their business. I can’t tell you where that tradition started. But you hear stories about the old days, when Babe Ruth would hold a drink in one hand and somebody’s wife in another – and acknowledge a passing sportswriter with full confidence his indiscretions would not be reported.

Maybe that was wrong. Maybe that was enabling. But those were the days when newspapers were in the hero-making business. Would you tell people Hercules had body odor?

I’m glad we are no longer so in bed with athletes (hey, apparently everybody else is!). I’m glad we no longer ignore drugs, steroids or gambling issues – issues that affect performance and sports’ integrity.

But we cannot – and should not – be the marriage police. One way you judge newsworthiness is to ask yourself, “If we didn’t report this, would the public good be lessened?”

The answer on Rodriguez is a resounding no. But the New York papers did it anyhow. And what New York does, others often copy.

If so, we’d better be careful. We’re so busy screaming about how sleazily our subjects are behaving, we’re ignoring how much we fit the same description.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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