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Controversies at the U.S. Open Expose Massive Conflicts of Interest in the Modern Media

It has often been said that golf is a microcosm of life. Yesterday’s two major controversies during the third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament certainly showed us a lot about why the modern media is dysfunctional, and journalism of all varieties is near death.

First, for context, I am a tournament golfer who has qualified for multiple United States Golf Association (USGA) national championships and have attempted to qualify for many others — including the U.S. Open. Also, I once briefly worked full-time for the PGA Tour, which is another of golf’s governing bodies.

The initial controversy to explode yesterday involved golf superstar Phil Mickelson inexplicably running after a moving putt that he thought would run off the green and slapping it back towards the hole with his putter. It is not hyperbole to say that this was the most shockingly flagrant violation of a golf rule by someone of Mickelson’s stature in the history of the sport.

For a someone who is not a golf fanatic to fully appreciate the inappropriateness of this stunning breach of multiple golf principles, try imagining what your reaction would be if the Santa Claus at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on live television, ripped off his beard and suddenly took a big swig of whiskey. That was pretty much the response of me and the other golfers I was with on the driving range to seeing what Mickelson did.

Now, the rules of golf do account for what happens in such a situation, with a two-shot penalty being added to the player’s score for the hole. However, the rules also state that if the act of hitting the ball in motion was done on purpose and to gain a theoretical advantage, then the penalty should be disqualification from the tournament.

Somehow, the USGA decided that Mickelson should NOT be disqualified, but rather only penalized. In my view, as well as others in the know, this was an absurd decision which should have been roundly castigated in the media. The USGA was clearly changing the rules of the game for the biggest star left in the tournament, after Tiger Woods had already missed the cut.

Any doubt about this was eliminated by the post-event comments by both Mickelson and the USGA. Mickelson admitted he did it on purpose, wrongly thinking that he could show the world how smart he is by gaining an “advantage” (even though he seemed oblivious to the fact that it actually would have been much smarter and totally legal for him to simply let the ball go, take an unplayable lie, and re-hit the putt from about the same spot). This made the USGA’s previous statement that, “Mickelson didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball,” seem down-right Trump-ian in its brazen disconnection from truth and reality.

I was very curious how the golf media, and sports media at large, would react to this situation. Having once been a part of that world, I hold those groups in even greater disregard than I do the political media. The relationships between the golf media, players, and governing bodies are about as incestuous as that between Fox News and the Trump family.

Fox Sports, which is carrying the U.S. Open, is effectively a business partner of the USGA. The golf media all need access to Phil Mickelson and don’t want to be on his bad side. Consequently, the media response to this issue was woefully inadequate.

While some on Fox voiced the view that “well, gee, if we look at this by the rules, maybe Phil should have been disqualified, but remember he’s such a good guy…,” Curtis Strange (a former player effectively in the same fraternity with Mickelson) conducted an interview with the man himself that was downright pathetic. Overall, Mickelson and the USGA were given a pass for an event that has arguably changed the rules of golf forever in a substantive and negative fashion, all to protect a superstar (as our president might say, “when you’re a star, they let you do it”).

On The Golf Channel, “reporters” Tim Rosaforte and Jaime Diaz — both of whom desperately need access to the game’s stars — acted almost like Sean Hannity talking about the Russia investigation. Thankfully, the network’s opinion panel was far more on the mark — with the consensus being that Mickelson should not be playing in today’s final round of the tournament.

The other controversy, which may have been significantly connected to what happened with Mickelson, was that many players thought that the course became unfair during afternoon play. As an “old school” kind of guy, I believe that enduring suffering an unfairness is part of what a U.S. Open is supposed to test, but my view appears to be antiquated in our wussified modern culture.

Here again, the media conflicts of interest bubbled immediately to the surface. Fox reporting on how their business partner set up the course is much like Kimberly Guilfoyle commentating on her boyfriend Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous Trump Tower meeting. Though, to be fair, they didn’t shy away from the topic and actually handled it a reasonably fair fashion.

The Golf Channel, on the other hand, had perhaps an even larger conflict which may have influenced their coverage of both of these dustups. You see, The Golf Channel is owned by NBC, which used to own the rights to the U.S. Open and other USGA events, until Fox stole them away in a negotiation which left enormous bitterness at NBC. I have had a top executive at The Golf Channel tell me directly that they were going to punish the USGA for what they did to them, and I have seen plenty of evidence on air to suggest that they were not remotely kidding.

So, I was hardly surprised when the general consensus articulated by The Golf Channel was that the USGA had royally screwed up the course setup. I am well aware that the USGA essentially admitted to this, but I have long ago learned that controversy-sensitive organizations will often take blame for things that they really shouldn’t just to appease the media jackals.

I am also well aware that, to the person who isn’t a big golf fan, none of this may seem like it really matters very much, but it does. The very same hidden influences that impacted the coverage of these events are routinely having a similar impact on virtually every aspect of the news, and it is only going to get worse.

[photo via Getty Images]

John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is a documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at johnz@mediaite.com

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

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