The 'Decision' dilemma
By ceding control to Team LeBron, ESPN raised ethical issues, damaged its credibility
Ohlmeyer By Don Ohlmeyer
It was billed without irony as "The Decision." But for those who thought ESPN could agree to televise live LeBron James' announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat -- ultimately served up with ample hype in the form of an awkward, uncomfortable, staged one-hour network special -- and still be free from public controversy, it might as well have been called "The Delusion."
As has been well documented, Team LeBron proposed the exclusive special to ESPN with the following conditions: (1) Veteran broadcaster Jim Gray, who has no current association with ESPN, would host the segment in which James announced his plans; (2) The network would yield the hour of advertising inventory to be sold by James' team with the proceeds directed to the Boys & Girls Club of America; (3) The network would produce the entire show and pay for all production costs.
Notwithstanding the noteworthy audience for the July 8 special -- it peaked at more than 13 million viewers, giving ESPN its second-highest rating of the year -- I think ESPN made some major mistakes handling the entire affair. In fact, in many ways, the network's decisions in airing the James' special -- and its justification for making them -- are a metaphor for what ails the media today.
Although past columns have paid scant attention to outside media opinions, in this instance their criticism of the network is germane because the media are part of this story -- ESPN made that so. And the critics' appraisal of ESPN's coverage seemed in sync with so much of what the ombudsman's mailbag offered. Examples:
• David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: "ESPN led the way Thursday night in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal."
• Leonard Shapiro, Washington Post: "The most troubling aspect of the whole ill-conceived mess was ESPN's willingness to hand over an hour of prime-time television to an egomaniacal athlete the network should be covering as a news story. … Does this not-so-subtle form of checkbook journalism pass the smell test anywhere else but in Bristol, Conn.?"
• David Barron, Houston Chronicle: "LeBron James hijacked ESPN, selling the network on an hour-long glorified infomercial preceded by three hours of breathless hype and numbing repetition."
• Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated.com: "The Decision is the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to, and it will take a long time for some viewers to get over it."
• Tom Hoffarth, Los Angeles Daily News: "The truth is, how does anyone believe anything else ESPN reports about James from this point forward?"
No single issue resonated as the reason for the negative comments. Instead, it was the intersection of multiple miscues that elicited the vehement diatribes -- a fast-food menu of issues that boiled over into a cauldron of criticism. You could get heartburn from any one, or try them all.
Some found ESPN guilty of violating a key ethical journalistic tenet -- paying for news. Others disdained the network's perceived pandering to a superstar, a trait causing them to ponder the network's biases. Still others decried a simple announcement being manufactured into the suspense of a "second coming." The monstrous hype that led up to the special was a calculated and constructed spotlight that media far beyond ESPN helped feed. To many, the aggregate was an affront to humility, loyalty, moderation … and instead became a celebration of greed, ego and excess.
Mixed in for good measure were reactions to what many saw as a carpetbagging, self-inflated athlete leaving an underdog city for the brighter lights of South Beach, and the revolutionary prospect of three of the best players in the world colluding to form an NBA super team. These reactions can be traced to the mercurial perceptions of superstars, and the age-old charge that the media -- reflecting the fickle nature of the populace -- enjoy building up celebrities until that inevitable moment when they tear them down.
Beyond James, it's a cautionary tale for ESPN. If the network wants to be considered the true worldwide leader in sports, it must accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the biggest player in the space, ESPN can establish and give credibility to a story. With that clout, of course, comes the obligation to cover each story not just with journalistic integrity but with appropriate weight -- or risk that very same credibility.
After talking to numerous people involved, it's clear that inside ESPN, there was a dichotomy of opinion -- almost a tale of two cultures -- as the network considered how to handle "The Decision." Those representing the business and studio production side recognized James' announcement as a real coup. It would have enormous audience appeal, flowing viewers through hours of network programming that night. It would feed into ESPN's reputation as the leader in sports television, the place to be for big events and big news. It would promote interest in pro basketball, one of the network's star programmatic attractions, and further a solid relationship with the NBA's biggest superstar.
That camp felt that some of Team LeBron's demands were problematic but that a workable solution could be found. For example, although ESPN agreed not to announce the telecast or its location until 24 hours beforehand, the network's reporters would be free to ferret out that information, as well as James' ultimate decision, without interference. Those reporters were unencumbered to report it as they normally would.
Moreover, ESPN insisted it would have "total editorial control." There would be no restrictions on what ESPN's commentators could ask James, and Gray's role would be limited to "a few questions." Turning over the advertising inventory was justified because the proceeds were going to charity. ESPN did not consider the interview a case of "paying" directly for exclusive access, as James was not directly compensated.
All this, the argument went, coupled with a commitment to transparency would ensure that no violation of network integrity would exist. In the end, these execs saw this as a unique opportunity that any other media company would have embraced -- and that ultimately wasn't unlike the ESPNU or "SportsCenter" practice of carrying live and exclusive college commitment announcements by top high school football prospects.
The other faction, made up mostly of those on the newsgathering side of the operation, saw it differently. Those in this group felt the James deal placed ESPN in an untenable position in which their journalistic credentials and integrity would be questioned. For them, the network was paying to play and opening up the news organization to charges of compromised standards. It also put some news executives in the uncomfortable position of knowing details they couldn't share unless one of their reporters uncovered it of their own accord.
For this group, the conflicts had to be eliminated. Its members felt the nature of the James/Gray portion of the show should be clearly identified to the audience as a separate event and not made to appear as a part of ESPN's editorial coverage. The public, they argued, should know that Gray -- handpicked by Team LeBron to handle the announcement -- might not approach his duties in a totally unbiased manner.
An alternative approach, in fact, appeared on ESPN's air just the day before. Carried live on "SportsCenter," the July 7 decision by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to play for the Heat was presented as a straight, exclusive, newsworthy interview -- there was no hype and no inventory swap, and ESPN controlled the announcers. Wade and Bosh wanted to announce their plans while bypassing the circus of an uncontrolled news conference and the bedlam of confrontational questions. Celebrities and politicians have perfected this art, and sports stars are catching on. Unlike with James, neither ESPN nor the athletes were criticized.
Despite ESPN's intention, the network did not have "total editorial control" in the James announcement. Yes, ESPN reporters confirmed on their own when the announcement would take place and the network reported it. Yes, reporter Chris Broussard -- quoting what he considered very reliable sources -- reported early on the morning before "The Decision" that, barring the unforeseen, James was going to join the Heat. And yes, Michael Wilbon, an ESPN NBA analyst and co-host of "Pardon the Interruption," conducted a lengthy, straightforward interview with James after Gray had completed his questions.
But even so, if the interviewee also brings along his own interviewer, you cannot protect the integrity of the broadcast. According to ESPN, the understanding with Gray was that he would ask James "a few questions" before LeBron announced his destination. That "few" turned into 16 questions. And on a live telecast, when an announcer who doesn't work for your network gets to questions 7, 8, 9, 10 … well, there's nothing the producers can do. They can't kill his microphone; they can't come out and pull him out of his chair; they can't even fire him because he's not in their employ.
ESPN's producers were stuck, and, at the key moment of the telecast, the program was out of their control.
Editorial control also covers the length of a program. "The Decision" was much longer than it needed to be. But both Team LeBron and ESPN wanted a spectacle, not just news. James' announcement could have been accomplished adequately in less than five minutes, and a 20-minute follow-up interview could have exhausted the news value and informed the audience of the subtleties and consequences of the decision.
Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy weighed in before the special, artfully observing, "It's gotten ridiculous. It's almost like a parody of itself, this whole situation now. Come on, an hour long? It takes 15 seconds to say 'I've decided to stay in Cleveland.'"
Even on ESPN's air, during last week's ESPY Awards, host Seth Meyers called the James special "boring" and said, "Did it really need to be an hour? Somebody time me. 'Miami.' How long did that take? A second."
But if you let the subject sell an hour's worth of inventory, then the program needs to be an hour -- and that's an editorial acquiescence, not an editorial decision.
No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN "paid" for exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive. Team LeBron sold those advertising units. The fact that it was in turn distributed to charity was immaterial, journalistically. James used ESPN's commercial spots in an effort to enhance his image as a responsible, caring charitable guy -- there's direct value to James in doing so, and he did it courtesy of the network, and with the sponsor's money.
As to transparency, ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most. Although there was no attempt to hide the Gray involvement or the inventory arrangement leading up to the broadcast, the viewers were not explicitly told at the most appropriate moments that conflicts existed. Before turning from the Bristol set to Gray, ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James' team to do the interview.
At the top of the show, or leading into the first commercial break, the network had an obligation to make viewers clearly aware that the spots they would be watching had been sold by James, with the money targeted for charity. ESPN's disclosure requirement is to the viewers of that very show, not simply to other media (through promotional interviews or news releases) or to viewers of other programs. ESPN should never have traded inventory for access or allowed a subject to select his inquisitor, and if that meant losing the exclusive, so be it.
When trust is questioned, missteps are magnified. The previous day, on a conference call with media critics, ESPN said that the announcement would not be arbitrarily delayed to magnify suspense or fill out the hour -- and that it would take place in the first 10 to 15 minutes of the program. But when the throw from the Bristol set -- totally in ESPN's control -- didn't happen until 9:22 p.m. and the announcement wasn't made until 9:28 p.m., the network lost the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't interpreted as a minor mistake or misstatement. It was perceived to be intentional, and the network's candor and credibility were called into question by the mailbag and the media.
Of course, James' reputation was tarnished, as well. He was seen as an integral part of the hype, a co-conspirator with ESPN. And although some of that criticism was understandable, it was stunning just how quickly perceptions of the two-time NBA MVP changed. Before July 8, James had been generally thought of by many NBA fans and the media as a solid citizen. No drugs, no fights, no guns, no major off-court issues. His public persona was that of a hardworking, team-oriented, extremely gifted superstar who -- though confident -- wasn't cocky and even occasionally exhibited an air of humility.
His dalliance with free agency had been low key. Outside of an innocuous appearance on "Larry King Live," he seemed to stay out of the media spotlight. There was no grand tour of the markets competing to sign James. He had the six teams, including the Cavs, quietly make presentations in Ohio over a three-day period. The process was wrapped up a week after NBA free agency began. There was no Brett Favre-like Hamlet routine, no "to be or not to be" media melodrama.
Yet overnight he became, depending to whom you listened, a "narcissistic fool," "an egotistical self-promoter" and "an arrogant, selfish brat." Could a one-hour TV special -- albeit one that was poorly conceived and heavily criticized -- have that much impact?
Part of the issue was that ESPN and Team LeBron's concept for "The Decision" was based on hype. It was created to make James' decision an extravaganza. In that respect, it was immensely successful. It reached an enormous audience. And if your attitude is "I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me," then mission accomplished. But James' decision was going to be attention-getting, regardless. When the best player in the league changes teams, that's big news. And James and his advisers should have realized the importance of letting fans from the rejected markets down gently, especially those in Cleveland. He should have done so with style, grace, humility and appreciation -- he could have largely avoided the PR land mines and moved on to Miami.
Maybe ESPN analyst and "Around the Horn" panelist Michael Smith understood Team LeBron's take better than the rest of us: "His brand is not about whether you like him or not, it's about paying attention to him. He did this because he can. He's the king, and he rubbed it in everybody's face. It's a different day and age."
If that, indeed, was James' point of view, it further underscores the admonition of NBA commissioner David Stern, who was right on the money when he said of the special, "I would have advised him [LeBron] not to embark on what has become known as 'The Decision.' I think that the advice that he received on this was poor. His performance was fine. His honesty and his integrity shined through. But this decision was ill-conceived, badly produced and poorly executed."
Added Stern, "Those who were interested in it were given our opinion prior to its airing."
James might have been better served by making a concise, well-rehearsed statement that articulated the angst-ridden process that led to the most important decision of his life. Gray's interview seemed to be an attempt to dance around that point without giving away the climactic moment. After watching James' performance on "The Decision" a number of times, I felt a tinge of sympathy. He seemed quite likable, but there were few moments in which he seemed to exhibit any real joy. He looked tense, uncomfortable, on edge, nervous, ill at ease. There was little bravado except for the flip "I'm taking my talents to South Beach," which felt like a line someone else gave LeBron that he was having difficulty delivering.
An ESPN.com SportsNation poll taken after the program showed 60 percent of the responders felt his involvement in "The Decision" had "permanently damaged" his image. Dan Le Batard, a frequent ESPN contributor, noted that "Fans changed their opinion on him. He traded being beloved for being hated except in Miami. … He turned it into a spectacle that seemed to unnecessarily kick Cleveland in the teeth." Wondered ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, "Could James & Co. be so unaware that it would be perceived this way? Putting at risk the likability, respect and loyalty he'd built up over seven years?"
Although professional athletes have come back from worse, James' true test won't come until the NBA season this fall. Can a young 25-year-old accustomed to constant adulation deal with the boobirds that might follow him around the country? How he performs and how well the Heat succeed as a team will be the true tests of whether "The Decision" has any long-lasting impact.
Hype played an integral role in much of the negative reaction to "The Decision." It's a constant complaint in the mailbag. Viewers resent having ESPN promotions shoved down their throats. On July 8, the network basically dedicated six straight hours to the James announcement -- nearly as much hoopla as surrounds football on Super Bowl Sunday. There were three hours of pre-event "SportsCenter" coverage followed by "The Decision" and topped off with another two hours of "SportsCenter" coverage to wrap -- all wound tightly around a simple declarative sentence.
The telecasts were sprinkled with hyperbole, over-the-top lines such as "not ever in the history of American sports has an athlete generated such interest" … "with breathless anticipation … never before a free agency that compels and captivates." That, coupled with the 16-question stage wait, added an air of reality show "who's going to be voted off the island" phoniness to "The Decision" that was hard to ignore.
As the hours wore on, it was impossible not to ponder: Did the news value of James' decision really merit such prolonged speculation, dissection, explanation, argumentation and analysis? Competent television producers can create infinite hours out of whole cloth, and that was certainly the case here. But those "SportsCenter" fans looking for other sports coverage? Too bad. An average hour of the network's showcase contains 45 minutes of programming to cover the entire day in the world of sports. These prized minutes normally are doled out meticulously, attempting to satisfy the interests of a broad-based sports audience at the same time as servicing the fanatic. As "The Decision" approached, "SportsCenter" made an abrupt adjustment.
On Wednesday night's 6 and 11 p.m. editions of "SportsCenter," James' quest corralled almost a quarter of the show. On Thursday at 11 a.m., it monopolized almost half. And as the 6 p.m. show rolled around, it was "All LeBron, All The Time." In the two-hour "SportsCenter" that followed "The Decision," the non-NBA sports fan was virtually ignored, as were the 12 baseball games scheduled for that night, the World Cup semifinals and everything else in sports -- including golfer Paul Goydos' phenomenal 59.
At 12:03 a.m., ESPN finally provided four minutes, 25 seconds of the other stuff. No question this program had a larger audience than it normally would at this time of night, but that doesn't remove the sting for the regular "SportsCenter" viewers who came expecting to see highlights … and were fed a nonstop diet of LeBron. There are other choices for sports news, and if viewer habits are broken too often, they'll go elsewhere.
As noted, the James coverage increased ESPN's ratings. Big numbers are a tremendous ego boost, and they generally translate to major dollars. But the rating for "The Decision" was relatively meaningless financially for the network. The big bucks attached to its average audience of almost 10 million viewers were transferred to charity through Team LeBron. The early "SportsCenter" coverage was up 50 percent in ratings, and the 11 p.m. show more than doubled the time slot average with 1.4 million still watching at the final bell.
That's an excellent performance, but the difference in revenue is not going to change anyone's lifestyle. And any impact "The Decision" had on the network's overall 1.4 rating in prime time gets lost in the rounding of a multichannel 24-hour service with tens of thousands of hours of programming.
What's the long-term impact of "The Decision?" Clearly, the hype and excess surrounding James' choice was not ESPN's crime alone. Many of the same media participants that helped turn it into a quasi-national obsession were among some of the program's sternest critics. Many in Bristol tend to slough off media criticism, minimizing it because they feel ESPN wears an enormous bull's-eye -- the network is Goliath to an army of Davids who love to play Whac-A-Mole at ESPN's expense. Maybe that's the case and maybe not, but there are certainly times when criticism is justified -- and this was one of them.
Ratings are the drug of choice in the media world. The Nielsen numbers are a siren song and the justification for innumerable sins. But ESPN owes it to its audience to avoid the ratings trap. It should set the bar high, not lower it. The vast majority -- more than 200 million of ESPN's available viewers -- didn't watch. And of those who did, some certainly wondered, "What's the big deal with the criticism? It was interesting." Even among the dissatisfied viewers outraged by "The Decision," many will find something on ESPN tomorrow that they enjoy as much as they despised this. But the vehemence of the rebukes is worrisome.
Also troubling is the number of situations in the past year that allowed viewers to question their relationship with ESPN. All viewers, at one time or another, will hate a show, dislike an announcer, be disappointed by a scheduling decision, feel their team or athlete is being mistreated, etc. But an increasing amount of ombudsman mail contains an undercurrent that questions the network's honesty and integrity.
"The Decision" raises important ethical issues. Values have shifted in the past few decades. What was once black or white is now clearly open to interpretation. Paying to play in a news environment is both dangerous and wrong. ESPN likes to present itself as an unbiased news-and-information service, able to negotiate conflicting relationships with those it covers. But refusing to pay for interviews has been an accepted industry policy for decades. Some organizations do regularly violate it. The National Enquirer, The Star, TMZ and others make no bones about what they do. But that diminishes their reputations in public and professional circles and, rightly, causes consumers to question the validity of their information.
"The Decision" wasn't a tip from a paid informant exposing a corporate cover-up, nor was it a whistle-blower revealing government wrongdoing. Nothing that idealistic. This was the saga of an athlete offering to unveil a two-word career choice -- "South Beach" -- on national television and a network blinded by the lure of stunning ratings that thought it could dance around what should be a revered journalistic tenet.
Disclosure is the honest way of dealing with the audience. For it to be effective, it should signal to viewers that other agendas might exist and it needs to occur at those moments that offer context about possible conflicts. Timely transparency is a service -- generic transparency is often used as a copout. Disclosure doesn't provide total absolution. To borrow some of the hyperbolic tone of "The Decision," consider that Bernie Madoff was transparent when he admitted operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, but it was still stealing.
ESPN agreeing with Team LeBron to present "The Decision" also gives voice to mailbag criticism of the cozy relationship between the network and superstar athletes. The perception is that the network plays favorites, even in its news -- whether it's James, Favre, Ben Roethlisberger or Tiger Woods. Try as ESPN might to make decisions based on sound criteria, it will always be open to criticism. That is exacerbated when the network is seen to be in business with someone it's covering.
In the aftermath of the special, Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news, said that "This was a decision that the newsgathering operation at ESPN was not in on from the start. That was done for the appropriate reason of trying to separate church and state, business decisions from the process of reporting the news. The problem here was that the decision directly involved the presentation of news and ultimately had a damaging impact on our reputation as journalists.
"You can't justify paying for news. There are no excuses here. The hope is that we learned something from this, that we won't repeat the error, and that we can restore any lost confidence in our ability to objectively report and present the news."
For his part, Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production, said the network noted "going in that the arrangement wasn't perfect and this is not how we would draw it up if we were starting a show from scratch. The fact is that we weren't starting from scratch, which clearly made it more challenging. There were parameters presented to us, and we discussed and contemplated them extensively before proceeding.
"This was an extremely unique situation, given the enormity of the news and LeBron's status as one of the world's most recognizable athletes. Ultimately, we served sports fans by producing a show that featured an extensive and informative interview by Michael Wilbon, the primary reason why we accepted the proposal. As is the case with our other shows, we learned some things about how we could improve."
Just more than two years ago, ESPN's then-ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber wrote the following: "Clearly, ESPN's many layers of editors and producers are not all on the same page, not even about some basic principles that define the nature of a journalistic enterprise. Without a formal, written handbook of guidance and policy, there is not much chance they ever will be, and the price for that will be paid in avoidable suspensions, apologies and erosion of credibility."
I asked Patrick Stiegman, vice president/executive editor and producer for ESPN.com, about these written policies. "We are in the process of codifying many of the standards and practices for our newsgathering organization," he said, "but one of the tenets of that exercise is that ESPN prohibits payment to a source for a story or news interview. Even while not formalized, that is the guideline under which we have operated."
Two years later, and they're still in the codifying process. Either this is a far more complex exercise than it appears, or ESPN is reluctant to fully embrace formalized editorial and operating standards.
ESPN can brush off concerns raised about "The Decision," but it does so at its own peril. A major component of ESPN's appeal -- a value the network has cultivated for three decades -- is that the audience trusts what it's watching. Viewers want to believe the network is treating them respectfully, openly, fairly and honestly. If not, why should they bother watching?
Every decision has the potential to affect or even destroy that bond, and every decision needs to be made with that in mind. One of the steps ESPN can take to protect and even strengthen that bond is to ensure that those newsgathering policies are written, distributed, read, understood and made part of standard operating procedure. Those are "The Decisions" that matter.
Until next time …