John McEnroe enlists NPR to redefine fake news

So John McEnroe, who must, by now, have patented the phrase “you cannot be serious” fulfills his own mantra by telling NPR that Serena Williams would rank 700th on the men’s tennis tour.

The interview, which aired last Sunday morning, compelled Tuesday’s (Breaking News afficionados note, not Monday’s) NBC Nightly News to devote more time to it than the failed Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the White House warning to Syria against a new gas attack against thousands of its own children.

Marketing a second memoir these days must be challenging, exhausting and complex, especially since you probably covered all the really salacious information in the first one, now selling on Amazon for half the price. So an obvious strategy is to sell the new book by saying something so controversial it commands debate and attention.

The publicist’s choice of media platform for this is tricky. But one of NPR and its affiliate stations’ most assured sources of content and revenue over the past few decades has been featuring prominent people pushing books, especially if they come with academic or news-worthy credentials. And if Donald Trump succeeds in getting rid of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — deeply affecting many of NPR’s affiliate stations, stand by for many more new on-air authors.

The excellent Scott Simon aside, NPR’s sports coverage has previously been distinguished only by championing personal achievement, perceived community spirit, news-worthy controversy such as drug-abuse or cheating, or covering international events with political fallout like the Olympics or the World Cup. NPR and its affiliates have never seen themselves as purveyors of scores or player trades, leaving all that stuff to their commercially-charged rivals. So the chance to interview McEnroe — before Wimbledon starts — is a news-worthy way to reach those much-coveted and previously elusive educated sports fans in the audiences.

McEnroe’s inquisitor, NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia Navarro clearly didn’t know what might come out of John’s mouth before they started. The interview began more like what us old BBC journalists might call a “fishing trip” (dip the line in the water and see what bites). But when she asked McEnroe about his reference in the book to Serena as “the best female player in the world” he chose -dangerously at least — to expand on his assertion, and then he bit embarrassingly on her invitation to compare Serena with the men.

On the face of it, it seems McEnroe would have been fully aware of what he was up to, and what the fallout would be. I’d prefer to think it just spat out of his sexist mouth, and I’d hate to see a media-induced re-run of Billie-Jean King versus Bobby Riggs, which would confirm our fears that men and women haven’t solved anything for half a century. But those were different days and Serena — as a true champion — will see no reason to boost McEnroe’s book sales.

And, of course, for book launches, timing is everything. And John has been in the NBC commentary box at Wimbledon since 1992. I’m sure this didn’t factor in their decision to highlight his comments this week on their flagship international news show.

For those viewers and listeners left scratching their heads — there are facts, lies, and opinion. And sadly for John, this came across as a “Hail Mary Pass” of the latter, since Serena could probably beat the hell out of some of the best in men’s tennis.

But what the heck, let’s start another mainstream media-assisted sex war, just to sell a few books. Like we don’t have enough to fight over. It must be summer in America 2017-style, “where opinion and fake news collide” to muddy life’s real changes. That could be a great catch-phrase for the next cable news channel.

Mark McDonald is an international communications consultant. He was a BBC World News producer, and an NPR major market station News and Program Director.

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