Email Exchange: The Media Ethics of LeBron-Mania

original

Today’s article: “Nothing But Hot Air,” Will Leitch, Sports on Earth

Michael Rosen:

So, hey, LeBron! People (including ourselves) seem to have been talking about him a lot lately, and that’s likely to continue into, well, forever. But the chatter will be especially present over the next couple of weeks, when the hot, shining, bright lights of free agency shine down upon him and the promise of an entirely new NBA rests in his hands.

And so his recent ubiquity will lead to a million different angles on this whole story, and I thought this particular one from Will Leitch was an interesting take. Cam, you described it as meta-journalism on Gchat, so does that make this meta-meta-journalism? Anyways.

My initial reaction reading the piece was to want to go on a long, pissed-off rant about Chris Broussard’s merits, or lack thereof, as a journalist. The guy has become a running joke on NBA forums and among NBA junkies as someone who has no other talents than blowing smoke out of his ass in impressively vast quantities. This reputation/stereotype is all the more validated by exactly what Leitch is highlighting here; Broussard, by virtue of his platform on ESPN, has a certain level of exposure already, and he can magnify his exposure to astronomical levels by throwing out these unverifiable claims about LeBron, feeding the insatiable desire for more LeBron information – more, more, more.

But just dismissing Broussard as a terrible reporter out-of-hand feels irresponsible. The New York Times doesn’t hire someone with zero talent at age 30. Someone with zero talent doesn’t get the platform Broussard’s been granted by ESPN. So there’s something naturally at tension here, between the near-universal loathing of Broussard by the internet, and Broussard’s undeniably impressive resume befitting of one of his generation’s great sportswriters.

Maybe some of that internet hatred has to do with his quite vocal opposition to gay marriage, but I think that it’s less petty than that. Broussard appears to be the product of that insatiable maw, wanting and wanting, even if there’s no substance behind what they’re consuming. ESPN is almost assuredly paying him more money than a sports journalist should ever dream of making, and in return he is their figurehead, spewing out unsubstantiated rumors on Twitter until the real truth comes out, and then starting all over again.

All of this is why I find Adrian Wojnarowski so impressive. In the age of empty BS and rumors upon rumors, Woj seems to only report that which he finds likely to happen. If I see a Woj tweet pop up on my feed, I take immediate attention, and essentially believe anything he says. This is the value of careful, truthful reporting; your audience actually builds a trust in what you say.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all of this, except that to say Broussard is really probably a necessary evil, and that if we really want to project a bunch of hatred upon Broussard and his ilk, then maybe we should take a look at the people who necessitate that type of reporting to exist. It’s not a one-way street, I guess, is what I’m saying. Broussard exists because we need info.

Didn’t really get around to asking many questions here, so: how do you feel about Chris Broussard? And do you think there’s any value in a culture existing where reporters that break the news first receive credit and admiration?

Cameron Seib:

I lack much of any feeling about Broussard. Part of that’s me not paying that close attention to the NBA, and so not keeping up on his reporting. And part of it’s exactly that: Broussard is, above all, a reporter. I have opinions #FerDayz about Grantland writers and Deadspin columnists, but a reporter’s talent is something I’m neither qualified to criticize, nor really interested in discussing. With that in mind, I want to tackle two things, first your last question, and then the general shouting-match culture so prevalent in today’s media.

I don’t know if there’s value in rewarding and admiring those reporters who initially break a story, but if there is, then I don’t understand it. During our exchange on the Redskins’ trademark ruling, I initially linked a Washington Post article as the day’s piece. But then you suggested I switch it out for a ThinkProgress article, because that’d been the one to actually break the news. The same thing happened when we first emailed about LeBron. Flashing back a bit ironically, I remember you actually said I should link that exchange to a Broussard article, because, again, it was the one that first broke the story we were discussing.

Each time, I was fine switching out the piece I’d originally chosen. To be honest, though, I didn’t see the necessity in either change. I think that gets back to the above, when I said the strict field of reporting is not one that really interests me. Journalism, to me, has never been about what, factually, the news is, but rather what, more abstractly, any given voice has to say about that news. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of my ambitions; I’ve never dreamt of breaking stories, only suggesting how we might best think about those stories. But whatever the reason for my lacking enthusiasm for reporting, the fact has one undeniable result: I don’t find who breaks the news a particularly important matter. “Oh, nice,” I might think to myself, “Woj broke the story.” Really, though, what’s mostly on my mind: “Where’s Zach Lowe’s piece analyzing how said story will affect the league?”

Which is not to say good reporting is not sometimes crucial to dispensing good opinion. As we mentioned with Jonathan Abrams, his reporting abilities allow him to tell stories and make insights he would otherwise be unable to, and for that, his investigative talents should be commended. But I see a difference in that type of reporting, using it as a means to an end, and using it merely as an end in itself. Any time Twitter is busy lauding a news-breaker, I can’t help but think everyone’s just congratulating a guy for having the right contacts in his phone. That’s probably an unfair assumption, but it’s my genuine view, and considering that, you’ll probably understand why I don’t find crediting who breaks the story all that important. (Of course, I should also note, I recognize the difference in breaking the news that LeBron will become a free agent, and, say, being the first on a story about corruption in the Oval Office. The first would be made known to the public regardless, the second requires savvy detective work.)

Okay, so on to Chris Broussard, Stephen A. Smith, and others with an uncanny ability to talk a lot without saying much. What you said, Mike, about these guys not working on a “one-way street,” is exactly my sentiment. If (for some crazy reason) you see ESPN as a fundamentally journalistic institution, and hold them to the ethical standards of one, then I can understand why you’d be upset about how much airtime is taken up by First Take, PTI, etc. But if you weren’t born yesterday, you know ESPN is solely a money-making enterprise, and doesn’t really try to appear otherwise. So what’s with all the “ESPN oughta replace these shows with real journalism” banter? Clearly, guys like Broussard and Smith make ESPN wealthier despite their frequent breaches of journalistic standards. And ESPN obviously doesn’t care, because its goal is to become richer, not more journalistically pious. If there truly was no place for these guys in sports media, as writers like Leitch seem wont to argue, then they wouldn’t be employed by ESPN. Again, these thoughts could all be a result of my lacking history in bare bones journalism, and resultant unconcern with maintaining its purity. But ‘tis what ‘tis.

My questions for you, Mike. There’s no doubt ESPN cares more about money than morals (journalistic ones, at least). Do you think the company makes this known to the public, and thus is innocent in its pursuit of wealth? Or do you think it poses itself as a journalistic institution, and thus could be at fault for hiring reporters like Broussard, because the general public relies on ESPN for factual information? More broadly, do any news corporations have an obligation to uphold the ethics of journalism? Why is it that we feel justified in lambasting CNN’s news coverage for favoring ratings over accuracy; is the company not allowed this right?

MR:

I agree with you that the gap between the talent required to break stories and to analyze them is a vast one. One skill, as you say, is (mostly) about having the right contacts in your phone (will get back to this), and the other requires too many things to list. I disagree with you, though, that it doesn’t matter whether the reporter in question who broke the story is credited.

Because it’s not like anyone can break the story. Sure, it doesn’t really mean much in the big picture that we found out that Josh McRoberts is going to re-sign with the Bobcats three hours before his agent announces it. But to discover that McRoberts planned on signing that deal, Woj (or whoever) likely needed to tap into relationships he’s spent years forming, and perhaps betrayed a trusted source of his own to get to that story. Maybe I’m just being overly sympathetic to the journalism industry, and I can see now that your argument seems stronger than mine, but I do feel that it is not as “easy” to break these stories as it appears to most — as meaningless as it may be — and the reporters whose lives are spent chasing these stories ought to receive the credit when they achieve a professional victory.

As for The ESPN Question: this is a big, tough one, at least in the broadest sense of the question, which you phrased as “do news corporations have an obligation to uphold the ethics of journalism?” I have my personal opinion on the matter, but first, let’s talk about this on a smaller scale.

ESPN stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. It’s right there in the name; entertainment comes first. It always has, and it always will. But I’m a little torn on whether they have actual journalistic obligations. Like you said, ESPN is a corporation, and ultimately its goal is to make money over anything else. If it’s inventing rumors about LeBron, or generating discussions about whether Joe Flacco is #ELITE or Colin Kaepernick can be the greatest NFL QB of all-time out of thin air, why should we respond, “But those are faulty morals!”? I think, as you hinted at, it is because ESPN presents itself as a news organization, even if they are not nominally so. Is there some fundamental difference between The New York Times and ESPN/CNN, besides the fact that one is in print and one is on television? And if the print/television binary is the only concrete difference, then why can’t we say about the NYT, “Oh, I don’t care if it makes some BS up, it’s a corporation and therefore their only moral obligation is to make a profit.” It’s because we, as a society, perhaps naively, imbue any organization that disperses information to the public with high moral standards. And it seems that print publications do their best to stay in line with these standards, while the television medium doesn’t, and will never. If we’re okay with imposing moral standards on a product that is also profit-driven and expect them to perform within that bind (i.e, newspapers), then why isn’t the same standard held for ESPN/CNN? Couldn’t you argue they should be held to an even higher standard, considering they dispense information to a much wider net of people? So maybe I’m not torn at all on this issue; I think of course they have an obligation to uphold news ethics, and just because television was born in a different time in this country’s history and within a different discursive context, doesn’t mean that television mediums of dispersing information should be held to an altogether different standard.

CS:

I felt a bit aggressive in my take on reporting, but seeing you didn’t completely discount it, I’m actually going to verge into #HotTake territory. Your phrase “professional victory,” is exactly how I view a reporter’s breaking of a story. He or she succeeded in doing what their job asks. But this alone isn’t grounds for appraisal. The reason millions of people are out of  work and struggling to support themselves is precisely because Wall Street CEOs register “professional victories” every day.  Fulfilling the demands of your position is not inherently honorable, because some jobs ask employees to do some terrible things. Which is not to say breaking the news of, say, Josh McRoberts’s signing is somehow bad for society. But it is to say, sure, Woj succeeded, in that he told us about McRoberts a few hours before the same information would’ve been made public anyways; now, how is anyone better off for it? Because I can’t help but think the answer is “not really at all,” I don’t find commending a reporter’s breaking of a story all that important. I realize sports reporters take pride in their work and appreciate receiving credit for a job well done, which is fine to give them. Ultimately, though, I’m often felt wondering why we credit people for being a good at a job that seems so meaningless.

I think it’s unfair to say the only difference between ESPN or CNN and the NYT is a matter of television and print. There are many, many things that differentiate either type of institution. But that’s a topic for another time. Right now, we’re just concerned with the obligation of news corporations, of any sort, to uphold the vaguely defined notion of journalistic ethics. I’m fine with a media outlet giving shitty information, so long as the company doesn’t try to present itself as a trusted source of knowledge. I don’t read TMZ much, but I’m guessing half the stuff it puts out is shit, and no one cares because TMZ would openly acknowledge it’s more a place to find rumors and gossip than hard facts. You can’t expect something if the company isn’t pretending to provide it. On the flip side, I’d take issue with the NYT giving out faulty info, because it poses itself as a destination where people can come to discover what truly’s going on in the world. I guess this all boils down to a simple moral lesson, and that’s to be honest. The problem becomes difficult when looking at a large body like ESPN, because no one’s exactly sure what image the corporation is trying to give off.

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