Media Agencies: Messiah Complex

I do not know Tiger Woods, but I sense he doesn’t like Charlie Pierce. I do know Charlie Pierce, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.

I met Charlie Pierce when Adweek was about to redefine itself for the 1990s, and I was working with an editor named David Granger on creating a feature well that could rival the best consumer magazines. This was 1991. The economy didn’t work. America was in an angry mood, and advertisers had to understand what would cheer it up. So I came up with the idea of sending a writer on the road to discover America in a down cycle. We’d send the writer to four corners of the country and just let him absorb and convey and reveal.

Granger had been a features editor at The National, the ill-fated sports newspaper. While there, Granger had begun to develop his now preeminent reputation as being the best writer’s editor in the business. And Granger said Charlie Pierce was the writer who could pull off my idea. A sportswriter capturing the mood of America? But Charlie Pierce was no sportswriter like you’ve ever seen. Still, Granger said, I would have to meet with Charlie and try to explain the story. We met. I tried. Yet, as the years have taught me, meeting for the first time, understanding one of my so-called big ideas and knowing what to do with it are not three things that necessarily happen at the same time.

Well, the country did not reveal itself to Charlie Pierce. Only two of the four corners in the series ever ran. Granger left Adweek soon after to join GQ, where he edits the finest group of feature writers in magazines today. I saw David a month ago and he told me Charlie Pierce had written the greatest sports profile ever. It was about Tiger Woods. He had Tiger talking about sexual prowess. Granger knew he had a hot one. And he knew that wasn’t at all what the article was about. Granger had read the story.

Tiger Woods is the greatest draw in golf, a game I love. This is a special time to be in love with golf. You get to watch the greatest draw, week by quickly passing week, become the greatest golfer of all time, before he’s even 22. Tiger Woods is being Nikefied, marketed as a messiah who wears signage on his robe as he breaks down color barriers and lingering prejudice in America and, maybe some day, the world. That is what the Swoosh would have us believe, and it feels so good, we all want to be believers. There may be no blasphemy against the promise of Tiger Woods.

This month, Woods, wearing swooshless Hilfiger, appears on the cover of GQ. Never, though, has a cover line promised less of what a story had to offer: ‘The Coming of Tiger Woods, Sports’ Next Messiah’ by Charles P. Pierce. It sounds like a generic celebrity profile. That cover line does not refer to a story that would make Tiger Woods stand in front of reporters’ microphones and declare he does not like Charlie Pierce. Charlie duped him. Charlie let Tiger Woods curse. He let him tell jokes about penises and lesbians. He let him act like a 21-year-old kid. And then he didn’t let him take it back. Charlie Pierce had blasphemed Tiger Woods’ messiah charisma. Woods painted Charlie as a typical press hatchet man doing a Lizzie Borden on his life. Tiger Woods even said he didn’t care what Charlie said about him, but that stuff about his father, well, that was going too far. But Tiger Woods could not have read the story, either.

Charlie Pierce’s blasphemy was that he wrote a story about blasphemy instead of a celebrity profile. That was, in effect, the point of Charlie’s story: How can you write about the true kid when he is a messiah and to make him truly a kid is blasphemous? The article begins with a joke. St. Peter playing Jesus in golf. Jesus uses his divine powers to make a hole in one. St. Peter says, ‘You gonna play golf, or you gonna f–k around.’ ‘Is this blasphemous?’ writes Pierce. ‘Is it? Truly blasphemous? Truly? And what would be the blasphemy? And what would it be? The punch line? That Saint Peter is said to be using a curse word as regards his Lord and Savior? No, ma’am. Sorry. Please consult Matthew 26:73-74.’ And he does, and he’s right. And then he writes, ‘I would not want Jesus in a $1,000 Nassau, not even with four shots a side. I do not like my chances at that. No, ma’am, I do not. I believe Jesus would take my money. Is this blasphemous? Is it? And what would the blasphemy be? What would it be?’

So the point of Tiger Woods is made clear. You can be blasphemous toward Jesus and nobody will mention it as long as you do it in a story in which you blaspheme Tiger Woods. Who is Jesus compared to Nike’s golden idol, the messiah of golf? I do believe Charlie Pierce has finally captured America, all four corners of it. Yes, ma’am, I do. You should read the story.

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