ESPN Bends Journalistic Rules for LeBron James Special

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Getty ImagesIs sports coverage news, or is it entertainment? How you'd answer that question likely determines what you think about the deal ESPN cut with LeBron James for an hour-long special about the NBA star's choice of a new basketball team.

To get an exclusive with James, the league's most sought-after talent, ESPN had to make a few concessions. All of the commercial support for the show will come from brands James endorses -- Nike (NKE), McDonald's (MCD), Vitaminwater, Bing (MSFT) -- and all the advertising revenue it generates will be donated to the Boys & Girls Club of America. That means the program is essentially a loss leader for ESPN -- something the network is content to lose money on in the short term in the expectation that it will pay off down the road.

But that's not even the controversial part. ESPN also agreed to let James choose the reporter to whom he will announce his choice. (It's Jim Gray, a former network staffer.) In the minds of journalism purists, that's the kind of thing that pushes an interview from a news story to a stage-managed publicity event.

"[T]he degree to which the network is letting the subject of its coverage outline the business of the event is, quite frankly, stunning," writes Advertising Age. "And if this works, who's to say the latest reality star, C-list actress, attention-starved politician or self-important bloviator won't try to get their own charity-minded moment in the sun?"

No one's to say that, of course, because it's already happening, and has been for some time. Indeed, requiring news organizations to donate to a favored charity as a pre-condition of an interview has become almost an accepted practice. It's what People magazine did when it acquired the first photographs of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's newborn twins, and it's also how NBC's Today Show scored an interview with Prince William and Prince Harry in 2007. Likewise, celebrity-focused magazines are used to negotiating who will conduct an interview or shoot the accompanying photographs.

If, say, The New York Times were to make agreements like that, it would be a major scandal. But People and Today both occupy a place in the media ecosystem that's somewhere between hard news and pure entertainment, and we judge them accordingly. Sports journalism -- the business of covering games played by grown men covered in advertising logos, in between beer commercials -- falls somewhere into that middle ground as well. With tonight's special, ESPN merely inches a little closer to the entertainment end of the spectrum.
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