Friday, July 30, 2010

ESPN losing journalistic credibility

I couldn't possibly care less about the National Basketball Association and LeBron James. But James is playing a major role in a developing issue that I care deeply about as a journalist: the apparent loosening of ethical standards at ESPN.

First there was ESPN's agreement to cede all revenues and editorial control over key decisions for the overhyped interview in which James announced he would be leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat. (Full disclosure: I actually didn't watch "The Decision,” but I couldn't get away from the fallout, which dominated even non-sports news outlets the following day). Now comes news that ESPN quickly pulled an article that portrayed James in an unflattering way, consuming alcohol and surrounded by naked women.

Personally, I don't care about James partying in Las Vegas. He's a wealthy, unmarried young man and I wouldn't expect any less than his exercise in excess. Unless laws were broken, it doesn't qualify as a news story that ESPN should be covering in the first place. But I can’t help but wonder what was behind the decision to pull the story. Was it removed from the website because it was a story of questionable news value at best? Or was it pulled because LeBron's people made it known that they didn't like it? Worse, was it pulled by ESPN decision makers because of fear they would fracture their too cozy relationship with the NBA's biggest star?

I used to be a regular ESPN viewer, but started to pull away when the YES Network came into existence. That pullback accelerated when the MLB Network was launched, but I have watched more SportsCenter in recent months due to my MLB Network boycott (I remain firmly committed to my boycott until Armando Galarraga's perfect game is restored and Bud Selig reconsiders the use of instant replay in baseball). But now that I know more of what's going on behind the scenes at ESPN, I won't be a regular SportsCenter viewer any longer.

As a journalist, I know that the line between editorial and business is disappearing, largely due to the perilous economic condition of the news media. I've had to fight back efforts to infringe on my editorial independence on more than one occasion. But ESPN is well established as the broadcast leader in the sports world while attempting to expand that dominance into print and online sports reporting. The network is highly profitable and a success story in every way, which makes the decision to acquiesce to a coddled superstar and sacrifice its editorial integrity incomprehensible.

ESPN viewers deserve better and network officials know it.

Thanks to Keith Allison via Wikipedia for the photo.

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