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Two-Time Washington Post Pulitzer Prize Winner Gene Weingarten Crushes SI for LeBron PR

lebon coming homeAs you’re abundantly aware at this point, LeBron James announced his decision to return to Cleveland last Friday in a first-person essay with Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins. The words, which more or less read like a press release, have been thoroughly analyzed by sports fans and media, and multiple outlets published background intel on how SI got the story (here, here, and here). (Disclosure: I wrote part-time for SI.com for a bulk of last year before joining The Big Lead.)

By the time the weekend rolled around, SI began getting criticized in some media circles for its role as LeBron’s mouthpiece. In the New York Times, Richard Sandomir wrote that “the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.” (Craig Calcaterra wrote a strong rebuttal.) Yesterday, Washington Post dual humorist and reporter Gene Weingarten, who won Pulitzer Prizes in 2008 and 2010, echoed Sandomir’s criticism and took it a step further, writing that the scoop shouldn’t be lauded and that the SI piece “was a pure load of crap“:

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.

A few tangential thoughts:

1) Weingarten concludes his criticism by writing that he “[doesn't] actually have a problem with SI having agreed to be the first to carry LeBron’s PR release on its site”, but shames various cheerleaders in the sports media (including Paul Fahri at his own outlet) for celebrating the scoop instead of calling it what it was. That’s more or less fair.

The business model of journalism is rapidly changing, and SI is a for-profit institution that recently got spun off from its parent company and must sink or swim based on how it produces in the marketplace. There is more immediate pressure to do so than at the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, and various high-profile glamor web sites that are sponsored by deep-pocketed institutions. (Though I’m told the situation at SI has been relatively dire for years now.)

SI said they didn’t notify their ad sellers in advance of the story (or whatever you want to call it) break, but you can bet this and the similarly PRish Jason Collins break will be the cornerstones of their pitches for the foreseeable future. With the magazine’s distinguished history, it’s unfortunate that they face these types of trade-offs, but it’s the reality of the brand’s current existence.

2) That being said, there are various “real” journalism endeavors at SI from the past few years that deserve to be greater called into question, like the Oklahoma State debacle, neglecting to fact-check for Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend, or making a photo on a club flyer the cornerstone of a cover investigation on Tyrann Mathieu.

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3) What web site or media outlet in the universe would have turned down LeBron’s request to run a first-person announcement about his free agency, or not acceded to each and every one of his demands? What’s miraculous is that LeBron even went through SI in the first place, as opposed to hiring a copywriter and releasing the essay on his own web site as Chris Sheridan initially reported he would. Presuming Jenkins’ assertion that he was a transcriber and not really an editor is true, did going through a media institution, even one as legendary and prestigious as SI, really enhance anything from LeBron’s perspective?

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4) What I personally have a bigger problem with on the Jenkins/SI front is the third-person story that was released earlier today. Sandomir and Weingarten both clamored for this type of reporting in the first place. The answer to Weingarten’s prevailing question — “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?” — is yes.

Jenkins’ story begins in prototypical SI STORY fashion with indulgent scene descriptions and writerly details about what LeBron was eating and drinking for breakfast:

Fifty-eight stories above the Las Vegas Strip, LeBron James sat on a beige sofa in his suite at the Wynn hotel, summer haze obscuring the floor-to-ceiling view of the Spring Mountains in the distance. Between bites of scrambled eggs and sips of carrot juice, James unspooled what sounded like a modern fairy tale. A boy grows up in a hard-bitten Rust Belt town, shuttling from one apartment to another with his single mother; he meets teachers, coaches and friends who help him become the most prominent basketball prodigy of all time; he is drafted by the pro team that plays 45 minutes away, elevates it to heights unseen and then abruptly bolts for a tropical paradise in a manner that devastates his supporters and wracks his soul. Four years pass, and he finds in paradise exactly what he sought, validation in the form of two championships, but home still pulls at his heart. He starts to recognize that, despite all his success, he means more where he was than where he is.

In the body there exists the implicit endorsement of LeBron’s journey as a fairy-tale with the final act yet unwritten, some talk about the 21-year-old kid who ran up to LeBron on the court in Cleveland and implored him to return, and discussion of LeBron’s charitable initiatives. There is no mention of LeBron’s entourage’s supposed feuding with Pat Riley, and there is no discernment about the practical applications of the power and leverage that LeBron’s two-year contract grants him over Daniel Gilbert: “James intends to finish his career in Cleveland, where his focus shifts from a collection of rings to one that would be transcendent.”

“He makes the sentimental choice, not the pragmatic one,” Jenkins writes, without giving much credence to the possibility that it may have been both (an anonymous scout projects a second round playoff exit for the Cavs next season). “and that doesn’t happen much in pro sports these days. He risks championships, the ultimate currency for the megastar athlete, but he returns to the Rust Belt secure in the realization that a trophy resonates deeper at home.”

The profile was not particularly edifying for engaged readers, and, given the enviable access, that’s disappointing.

 

 

 

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