Narrative control

Master of her domain? (Roberto Dell’Olivo)

Tennis player Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open after saying that she would not participate in mandatory press conferences. Osaka considers the conferences to be bad for her mental health and focus, causing her “huge waves of anxiety.”

I don’t think many athletes like doing media, but in most cases, like this one, they are contractually bound. It is then part of their job if not part of any competition. In most ways this seems to me to be a pissing match between a star athlete and the tournament about who needs the other most and I don’t care who wins. What I find more interesting is what’s being said about the contretemps in the press.

In general the media response has been quite supportive of Osaka, though she has certainly had her critics. I found a few articles written in Osaka’s defence noteworthy though for how they characterize what is going on.

Cate Young concludes by finding the whole thing a little old fashioned in 2021. “In a landscape where most public figures have a direct line of access to their fans and supporters, the traditional media conference is nothing more than an outdated formality. If sports media wants to prove its necessity, it needs to demonstrate that it can do something an athlete with an Instagram account can’t.” For his part, Chris Jones congratulates Osaka on being part of “a huge transfer of power from fusty, historically patriarchal institutions, be they Broadway Leagues, awards committees, movie studios or governing bodies of sports, to individuals, especially those who have allied themselves with the struggles of their fans.”

Jemele Hill, continuing the theme of how progressive all this is, puts Osaka in the company of other Black athletes, particularly NBA players. She mentions Kyrie Irving as one such, as he had been fined for not speaking to the media, saying that he wanted “to perform in a secure and protected space.”

The nagging suspicion that leagues and reporters alike fundamentally misunderstand athletes of color makes these athletes still more determined to cultivate their own image with fans. That’s why so many prominent athletes — including the NBA stars Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant — have opted to launch their own media companies. With their massive social-media followings, they can take their message directly to the public. Many of them don’t need press conferences to promote or build their brands, and the establishment is having trouble adjusting to the new normal, in which it can’t make players do what it wants simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

The issues that Osaka has raised aren’t going away. These days athletes would much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them. Not long ago, players couldn’t win any power struggles against the media, much less their own league. Now they can.

Does this sound familiar? A celebrity with a (real or imagined) grievance at how they are being treated by the mainstream or established media leverages their fame to take their message and brand directly “to the people” by way of “their massive social-media followings.” In doing so they hope to establish “a secure and protected space” and control the narrative around their brand.

Yes, it’s the Trump playbook. Remember that Trump just wanted to be treated fairly. He just wanted to protect himself. He would still appear on Fox News, just as Osaka clarified that she was OK “with all the cool journalists.” If one is forced to deal with the press, it’s best if they’re the tame variety.

Three points stand out from these interpretations of the Osaka affair.

In the first place, both Young and Hill make this into a pissing match not between an athlete and her sport’s governing bodies but between a celebrity and the media. Why? What did the media do wrong in attending these admittedly silly dog-and-pony shows? Are they responsible for Osaka’s anxiety? Aren’t they just doing their job? A job, I might add, that few of them enjoy any more than the athletes.

The second thing I find remarkable is that Young, Jones, and Hill represent the mainstream media. Jones is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Hill was writing in The Atlantic, which is about as traditional or establishment as you can get. That is, they are going out of their way to slam their own side while championing Twitter. At what point does this denigration of the media stop?

Finally I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

I recently updated an earlier post I’d made about the way celebrities seek to control their public image, in particular through their dealings with biographers — which may be said to be the ultimate example of controlling one’s narrative. I’ve made it clear what I think of this. I’m left to wonder if Young sees a difference between a press conference and an Instagram post, or if Hill considers it a good thing that athletes (or powerful people more generally) can now crush the media and control their image and narrative. Does she feel the same about Bill Cosby or Donald Trump doing this as she does about Kyrie Irving and Naomi Osaka?

I have as many misgivings about the media as the next person, but I’ll take the side of professional journalists asking questions, even the same ones, however many times, over that of celebrities looking to cultivate their brand on social media. The wealthiest and most privileged among us are in no need of a safe space. Journalism, as the old saw has it, is writing stuff that someone doesn’t want you to write. Everything else is advertising. I’m afraid that if this sort of thinking is allowed to continue then advertising is all we’re going to have left.

Update, May 16 2023:

The quest for total media control by sports celebrities of their image and narrative continues apace.

In 2021 the movie King Richard, about the upbringing of the tennis-star Williams sisters by their father Richard, was only gently criticized by some reviewers for, as Jesse Hassenger put it, keeping “enough of Richard’s messy past off screen to feel like a hagiography with a few concessions, rather than a true warts-and-all portrait.” Hassenger did suspect though that “the family’s approval [Venus and Serena Williams are credited as executive producers] may have inhibited a truly complicated portrait.” Really? You think?

Man in the Arena: Tom Brady was a ten-part ESPN docuseries produced in part by Tom Brady’s own production company. It first aired in 2021-2022. Many noted at the time that it resembled the 2020 ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, on the career of Michael Jordan. That series was co-produced by Jordan’s company, and the filmmaker Ken Burns was one who found this a point worth criticizing: “if you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in . . . and that’s not the way you do good journalism.”

But did anyone think either of these series were primarily intended as “good journalism”? I thought of this when the movie Air was released in 2023, which tells the story of Nike’s wooing of Jordan to be a pitchman for the company. Though Jordan doesn’t appear in the movie, he did apparently have some . . . input. According to Wikipedia: “Although not directly involved with the film, Jordan met with [director Ben] Affleck prior to the beginning of production and gave the project his blessing, asking for four changes to the script. . . . Affleck and [co-writer Matt] Damon did an uncredited script revision to accommodate Jordan’s asks.”

I’m surprised this sort of thing isn’t called out more often. I do my bit — blowing the whistle on Space Jam: A New Legacy, for example, as nothing but an egregious exercise in celebrity brand placement — but why aren’t more people upset about this? I get that it’s mostly taken for granted, but even the way we pussyfoot around what’s going on, and the language used to describe how it works (Jordan’s “asks” had to be “accomodated” to receive his “blessing”) signal that we’re being way too easy on what’s going on. Unless there’s some serious pushback against what’s being done, it’s only going to get worse.


9 thoughts on “Narrative control

    • That part of it seems just like a power play. Usually when an athlete or star tries to do something like this, figuring that they’re bigger than the game, it doesn’t end up well. The thing is, there’s really no way the tournaments can cut her an exemption without declaring media events to be optional for everyone. But she may get them to change things a bit.
      I’m just not keen on the whole idea of celebrities (actors, politicians, athletes, whoever) calling the shots on how they’re presented in the media.

      Liked by 1 person

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