The Osaka Controversy Exposes the Changed Relationship Between Press Celebrities

Chris Hyde/Getty Images Earlier this week, in a series of events which shocked the sports world, but which may not have resonated much...


Naomi Osaka

Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Earlier this week, in a series of events which shocked the sports world, but which may not have resonated much beyond that realm, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the prestigious French Open. There are a lot of complex factors involved in this story, but the one in which readers of Mediaite should probably be most interested is that this could end up being a seminal moment in the fundamentally altered relationship between the news media and major sports figures.

To review, the 23-year old Japanese mega-celebrity, who was the No. 2 seed in the tournament, declared that she would not do post-match press conferences with the media during the event. The French Open, in conjunction with the other major tournaments, then released a statement saying that she would be severely punished if she didn’t fulfill her media obligations.

When that threat didn’t work, they fined her $15,000, with the prospect of more penalties if she kept advancing in the draw and still refused to make herself available to answer questions from the media. In response, Osaka then withdrew from the competition entirely, releasing a detailed statement where she cited her clinical depression being exacerbated by having to face media inquiry.

Before examining the media element of this story, let’s first stipulate on the mental health aspect of it. It is clear that Osaka, despite living what most people would consider to be a dream life, is unfortunately experiencing a lot of emotional anxiety. Osaka’s sister has previously remarked that the young star’s “confidence was completely shattered” over the media repeatedly asking her about her struggles on clay courts (the surface on which the French Open is played.)

However, she was able to win her first round match, and it is certainly possible that she took her stand as a shield for what was also partly a power play to get herself out of a difficult situation without taking much of a PR hit. If that was indeed part of her strategy, it worked like a charm as the news media itself as well as other high-profile sports stars have embraced her narrative and defended her actions, which, even she admits, were poorly timed and will have a huge impact on the playing of the rest of the event.

As for how this actually began, herein lies the crux of the matter. Much of the sports media is acting like it is still 1995 and they as individuals still have real clout and actually matter. In reality, as the media has fragmented into thousands of tiny pieces, the balance of power between reporters and the stars on whom they report, which has always been unbalanced, has now become roughly like that between an intern and the CEO of the large company for which they work (or, perhaps like a national mainstream news reporter and President Biden, who has bizarrely only done one alleged press conference in office, at which he was asked ZERO questions about the pandemic).

It is understandable that the tennis media was outraged that Osaka was planning on dissing them, probably because they know that they are so inconsequential in this modern age that, if she got away with this, many other top players would follow suit and very quickly their outlets would realize there is no reason to spend money to send them on location. It was mildly surprising that the tennis establishment went to bat so strongly for the media, but in doing so, thanks to Osaka playing her Trump Card, they may have just significantly worsened the media’s quickly eroding position.

Given the modern dynamics, news media personalities of any kind requiring intimate access to a powerful figure are essentially as delusional as an owner of telephone booths demanding prime street corners in major cities. As time has passed them by, they simply lack the influence to warrant such treatment and, in the age of social media, those they cover, especially the stars, have far better options to get their messages out on their terms (for the record, when was the last time anything truly memorable was said by an athlete in a post-game press conference?).

Recently, an extraordinary incident in golf provided a smoking gun for just how radically the relationship between reporter and star has evolved from adversarial to incestuous. At the PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka, one of the most famous golfers in the world, suddenly stopped his post-round interview with “reporter” Todd Lewis of The Golf Channel to express clear disdain—multiple profanities included–for fellow top pro Bryson DeChambeau.

When Koepka was done, Lewis, acting like the director of a movie whose actor just flubbed his lines, assured the player that it would never air but that the remarkable video would be enjoyed in private. The Golf Channel never aired the video (one which was not only highly entertaining, but also of real news value), but when it was leaked on Twitter two days later it went legitimately viral, before finally being taken down with all of the mainstream golf media pretending, in Orwellian fashion, that the entire episode never happened.

This situation showed that Lewis and Koepka are on the same team and both of them know it. Only being allowed to play the role of “reporter” is the price Lewis must pay for consistent access to the top players, who are not technically required to speak after their rounds (though the PGA Tour just created a peculiar $40 million prize fund to reward their most popular players based partly on media mentions and Google searches, thus incentivizing interviews with the media).

Having once been part of it, I already knew that the golf media is the biggest joke in what little is left of journalism in general, but watching this episode play out online what still rather illuminating. It was VERY clear that they average person had absolutely no problem with how Lewis had handled the situation, which explains why there is unequivocally no downside for “reporters” to openly kiss the ass of their stars so that they don’t risk losing their precious jobs.  There is simply no incentive to do what was once considered basic journalism.

To be clear, as someone who hates that public figures of all kinds are hardly ever exposed to difficult questioning anymore, I greatly lament this sad reality, but that is not Naomi Osaka’s problem. She has every right to answer or not answer whatever questions makes her feel comfortable, and then deal with whatever consequences may flow from those decisions.

The only way that the dynamic between reporters and public figures is going to reverse course and force stars to face real questions is if the sports/news media regains the public’s trust by acting responsibly, and the public starts to value real journalism over mindless fluff. Both of those developments, not coincidentally, are about as likely as Naomi Osaka holding an open press conference in response to this controversy.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.



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