In many ways, ESPN’s broadcast of LeBron James’ “Decision” was a boon for the network. Garnering over 13 million views, it was the second-highest rated show this year on the network and easily the most talked about. But, ratings or no, the amount of control James exerted over the direction of show, even handpicking his own interviewer Jim Gray, has serious journalistic implications going forward. ESPN’s ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer was not a fan:
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.
Meanwhile, on his blog Journal-isms, Richard Prince notes that two years ago, ESPN’s then-ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber wrote ESPN had yet to establish formal journalistic guidelines.
“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.”
Looks like, two years later, the network is still working on it.