LeBron James announcement on ESPN tonight reveals how much newsmakers now control journalism
(UPDATE: Now that James has revealed he's going to Miami, bamboozling ESPN into devoting a day of overheated coverage to a decision many experts predicted for the championship-hungry star, we see how dangerous it is to let news subjects dictate terms of journalists' work)
The first thing to recognize about LeBron James’ singular announcement tonight, is that this is about so much more than where the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar will play his next season of professional basketball.
That’s hard to believe, given the amount of chatter across the globe that the sports world has lavished on this moment, when basketball’s most talented player will reveal which team gets to enjoy his singular contributions for the future. With major markets such as New York and Miami among the rumored favorites, there’s little surprise that the media universe is dissecting this decision with an intensity usually reserved for Lindsay Lohan DUI arrests and gaffes by GOP chairman Michael Steele.
The frenzy resulted in The Decision, an hourlong special airing on ESPN at 9 tonight that was pitched to the sports channel by James’ own management team. But the deal —- which included allowing the athlete to pick who will interview him and the show’s sponsors — heralds the next step in a growing problem for modern journalism.
These days, newsmakers exert more control than ever over coverage of their stories. And what James’ moment tonight reveals, is just how much control an outlet supposedly devoted to sports journalism will cede to the star of a news event, just to get exclusive rights to the first moment that news hits the world.
“Right now, you’re seeing it at the top of the sports world, but you’re going to see it trickle down to all levels,” said Kendall Almerico, a Tampa-based sports agent who represents players from the NFL and Major League Baseball. “If ESPN is willing to devote an hour in prime time to an athlete on his terms, any athlete would take that. Any entertainer would take that...And the media will play along, as long as they can make money, too.”
(The question now is whether James' announcement, expected in the first 12 minutes of the hourlong show, will be diminished by a flurry of news reports saying he's headed to the Miami Heat.)
Almerico’s math is simple: In a world where superstar athletes maintain their own relationships with fans and the world through Twitter pages, websites and other social media, a star like James can release a major announcement in his own terms, anyway. Indeed, in the early days of golf star Tiger Woods’ infidelity scandal, his only statements came from carefully worded releases posted to his website.
So ESPN has an incentive to play along with James’ demands, even though advertising revenue from The Decision will go to a charity handpicked by James, the Boys and Girls Club of America. The sports channel still gets a piece of the notoriety, TV viewership and online traffic that will follow the announcement, which is preceded by a expanded three-hour SportsCenter (James will also give his only broadcast TV interview to ABC’s Good Morning America Friday).
“What interesting is what goes on behind the scenes to make this announcement possible,” said Almerico, who believes James must have already negotiated a deal with a team in advance (The New York Daily News earlier today quoted officials from the Knicks saying he's probably headed to the Miami Heat). “You can’t say ‘I’m going to the New York Knicks’ on national television and then negotiate a deal. So they don’t have to worry about ESPN’s reporters...They have to worry about keeping the secretary who made copies of the contract at the team office quiet.”
ESPN is a logical flashpoint for such a problem, given the channel’s embodiment of sports broadcasting’s uneasy balance between journalism and entertainment. When Woods decided to give two, five-minute interviews before his attempted comeback in golf, ESPN got one of them and faced criticism over allegations of floating softball questions.
Now ESPN has allowed James’ organization to collect a lineup on sponsor including Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the University of Phoenix, McDonald’s, Nike and Sprite and vitaminwater, with proceeds to benefit charity selected by the star, Boys and Girls Club of America.
The man the sports star selected for his interview, freelance journalist Jim Gray, said he gave James’ management the idea for the special, pitching himself as the first interviewer. The whole setup makes Woods’ first post-scandal public announcement in February, which was boycotted by the Golf Writers Association of America because the star wouldn’t take questions from three pool reporters allowed in the room, look quaint by comparison.
And even though ESPN’s executive vice president of production, Norby Williamson, insisted their reporters would air the story of James’ choice early if they learned of it before 9 p.m. — saying the channel has a “church and state” separation between its business and journalism operations — few analysts seemed to believe him.
So in a world where the appearance of conflicted interests is as bad as an actual conflict, isn’t the damage already done for ESPN?
“We feel, journalistically, we’re in pretty good shape,” Williamson told reporters during a conference call Wednesday, noting columnist and host Michael Wilbon will interview James after the announcement, and lots of opinions will come from their stable of commentators. “I know there are questions about athletes controlling news...LeBron’s (only) in control of his own destiny; where he’s going to play and what he’s going to do next.”
Neil Pilson, a sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports, shrugged off the setup, saying it was a just variation of deals TV outlets develop with sports leagues all the time. “You could argue that the media, frankly are responsible for what’s happening; it was their wall-to-wall pursuit of the story that got the public worked up about this,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a similar situation with anyone else...(and) the public is pretty much getting what it deserves.”
But there are plenty more superstar athletes who may want to control their stories, too. And now they have a pretty nifty blueprint.
In the end, James’ biggest contribution to the sports world may not be a championship title or scoring record but a new definition of the relationship between a superstar athlete and the press.
And the damage for journalists, already struggling to convince the public of their integrity, may have just begun.