Gene's next monthly chat is Tuesday, July 29 at noon. You may submit questions here.
Although this weekly edition provides an update between live chats, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.
Greetings, update readers.
Today, a screed about something that is bothering me.
A few days ago, the biggest story in sports became the disclosure that LeBron James had chosen to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, his hometown team and the one with which he first achieved stardom. Everyone had been waiting for days for James to make his next move public, and some in the media were chiding him for delaying, teasing, making it more dramatic than it had to be.
The story was broken by a writer named Lee Jenkins, in a 950-word "as told to" piece ostensibly by James himself, appearing on the Sports Illustrated website. This was widely hailed as a huge "scoop." Paul Farhi of the Wapo called it maybe the biggest scoop ever for Sports Illustrated. In the sports media, there was general agreement on this point: Great scoop. Nice going, SI. Several media sites did elaborate tick-tocks on how SI achieved its great reporting feat. One discussion string on Twitter was that this was proof that magazines still have relevance in the new world of journalism. Kevin Van Valkenburg, a senior writer for ESPN, tweeted this: A MAGAZINE WRITER BROKE THE LEBRON STORY! IT'S OKAY TO GO TO JOURNALISM SCHOOL!
Sigh. God help us all. This was not a scoop. It wasn't even good journalism. It was a pure load of crap.
There's still reason to go to journalism school -- or at least to aspire to be a journalist -- but it's mostly to be a foot soldier in the war against the sort of thinking that has us idiotically celebrating this "scoop." This "scoop" has all the earmarks of a punt, a sad, sad, acknowledgment of what journalism has too often become in our current world of all-news-all-the-time, where being first is overvalued and being good is too often beside the point, or financially imprudent. So we settle for being glib. And, in desperation for eyeballs and bucks, we too often confuse commerce with journalism.
Let's take a look at what happened here.
What happened here was a perversion of journalism into PR. LeBron James had an announcement to make, and he wanted to make it with the greatest possible fanfare. He is a smart man about these things. So he correctly calculated that the best way to do it was to maximize the sense of mystery, which he did, and then have a controlled release through one large media source. This is an old trick. You get mass coverage of the event, and then mass coverage of the mass coverage, because you have an added storyline of "wow, what a scoop!" All of us -- media, and readers both -- fell for it. We all became his publicists. Shame on we, us, and you.
A "scoop" that is worthy of calling a "scoop" is when someone learns and tells us about something that the public needs to know and that someone else doesn't WANT the public to know. A true disclosure, often obtained through ferreting. There are occasionally great sports scoops, and they're not always in the New York Times or Washington Post. Tim Elfrink of the alt-weekly Miami New Times got a true scoop when he broke the Biogenesis scandal. Sara Ganim of the teensy Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot News newspaper got a true scoop when she broke the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
What just happened with Sports Illustrated? LeBron James had a story everyone knew was coming, any day now. Nothing unexpected; there was even speculation that he'd do exactly what he did -- return home. He decided to give this story to one guy (he knew and trusted this guy, and had good reason -- Jenkins had writ a rigorously uncritical 2013 SI piece nominating LeBron for SI's Sportsman of the Year). Then, SI accepts LeBron's suggestion that the story would be written in the first person, which became the ultimate journalistic punt. Give this story to me, says SI to LeBron, and, sure, we'll abandon all skepticism in return.
The story was ghost written to be by LeBron James, meaning it didn't have to be at all objective. It was an essay, not journalism, see? Because it was in his voice, it could be cloying and self-serving, which it was, mending fences, dripping with gratuitous praise of everyone, putting LeBron's decision in the most noble possible light. It was a PR release, only better than most, because it went through the computer of a professional journalist; it was a PR release with some classy writing -- expert PR editing provided free of charge by Sports Illustrated.
What a load of crap. And we all bought it like the stupid suckers we are.
Do you think Lee Jenkins, on his own, in an objective story in Sports Illustrated, BY Sports Illustrated, would have permitted this pap without some sort of leavening, narrow-eyed analysis of what is REALLY going on, in all its complexity? Here:
"But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."
Really, LeBron? This is not in any way about rehabilitating your selfish, greedy image, or anything? Gaah.
I don't actually have a problem with SI having agreed to be the first to carry LeBron's PR release on its site. But you have to call it what it is. And to the rest of the too-gullible sports media, shame on you for not calling it what it was.