You know how a seed becomes a sapling, how a sapling becomes a Douglas fir and how a Douglas fir becomes the newsprint that becomes your morning newspaper. But how, pray tell, does that newspaper come to contain "quotes," those pithy verbatim comments from interesting public figures that are set off by inverted commas? The answer is a fascinating rite called the "press conference," and this is how it works:
Sixteen minutes after a thrilling playoff game, a reporter seated four feet from Braves manager Bobby Cox makes a heartachingly nuanced five-part query—not so much a question as a Zen koan—about the crouching-tiger power of Tom Glavine's fastball, the paper-swallow grace of his changeup and the way his curveball, late in the count, sometimes resembles a cobra uncoiling. The question is then "paraphrased" into a microphone by National League vice president Katy Feeney, who says to Cox, "Talk about Tommy's stuff."
Only then, when all life has been leeched from the moment, may Cox—seated, on a riser, six feet higher than his subjects—reply, "I thought Tommy had good stuff."
The quote is then typed and distributed to the press as an urgent bulletin on official letterhead of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. These "quote sheets" are coveted by baseball writers who, while writing their game stories, need them next to their laptops, where they make useful beer coasters and nacho-cheez doilies. As a bonus, six paragraphs into his story the scribe may pause to lick cake frosting off the quote sheet, revealing Cox's insightful bons mots, which are immediately inserted into the seventh graf: "Tommy had good stuff."
All of which is to say that quotes are produced by precisely the same process—automated, uniform, blandifying—that Kraft Foods employs to stamp out bars of Velveeta. People like Velveeta, so why do things differently? During last year's baseball playoffs a reporter tried to inject some spontaneity and humor into yet another stultifying press conference by clearing his throat, furrowing his brow and asking gravely of the Yankees' manager, "Joe, who let the dogs out?"
To which Joe Torre, in audio-animatronic press-conference mode, replied earnestly, Well, lots of guys. I think Tino's hitting the ball well, Knobby's getting on base, Jeter has had a heckuva series and.... As Torre droned on, the reporter rose quietly from his seat, walked slump-shouldered to the back of the room and hung himself by his press credential.
For members of the press—who are seated around an elevated authority figure, cannot speak until called upon and wear their names on cards hung from their necks—the press conference resembles in every way a third-grade classroom, only with dumber questions. Two years ago at the U.S. Open, tennis player Todd Martin was asked, "Todd, could you tell us where you are physically right now?"
"Physically I'm right here," replied Martin. "Would you like to know where I am metaphysically?"
Worse, the number of questions entertained at a press conference is inversely proportional to the number of reporters in attendance. Thus, when Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he deigned to take 21 inquiries from the 500 inquisitors in the press tent. Naturally, golf writers die a little death whenever one of those precious questions is of a too-specific nature, of little use to anyone but the asker. So, after his historic victory at Pebble, Tiger fielded a question from an Asian reporter, who asked, "When are you coming to Korea?" Sigh.
Another question, from a Japanese woman, was even less serviceable: "Would you sign my hat?"