Posted: Thursday July 8, 2010 12:03PM ; Updated: Thursday July 8, 2010 12:54PM
Richard Deitsch
Richard Deitsch>MEDIA CIRCUS

ESPN tries to balance reporting, business with LeBron special

Story Highlights

ESPN has drawn critics for agreeing to air LeBron James' one-hour 'Decision'

Network officials claim it's a business opportunity no other medium would pass up

Its reporters have no input on production and will maintain editorial discretion

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The show comes with a title befitting Election Day or something equally presidential: "The Decision." It will be preceded by three hours of Super Bowl-style hype and followed by two hours of post-decision analysis. As of now, there is no word whether LeBron James will present a rose to the winning general manager upon making his decision.

Joining Bobby Brown, Danny Bonaduce, and a culture that made the name Kardashian as famous as Kmart, add James to the long list of fame-seekers with a reality show to his resume. He will make his long-awaited free agency announcement in the first 10 to 15 minutes of a one-hour prime-time special tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN Radio. By cutting an agreement with ESPN -- the deal was sealed Tuesday morning -- James assured himself a live audience in the millions and turned his decision into The Decision.

James's representatives brought the idea of a primetime special to ESPN late last week, with Maverick Carter, James' business manager, serving as the point person. ESPN agreed to cede control over its ads to James's marketing company, LRMR Marketing, who sold the roughly 10 minutes of national airtime. The show is being sponsored by The University of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing, as well as Vitaminwater and McDonald's. Their contributions will go in support of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Nike and Sprite will also make donations. ESPN will handle all aspects of the production including a studio setup in Bristol and a live interview with The Decider himself at the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn.

As for the perception that the network is giving up advertising inventory in exchange for an interview, not to mention the journalistically troubling arranged marriage between James and a network that employs dozens of news-gatherers, ESPN's executives defended the decision Wednesday. "We have complete editorial control and direction with the exception of what will come out of his mouth," said ESPN executive vice president of production Norby Williamson. "We're going to have the opportunity to offer our opinion here. It's a unique program that contains newsworthy content that any other television or media company would love the opportunity to offer. We control how we cover the announcement, not unlike ESPNU or SportsCenter when we do National Letter of Intent signing day."

Well, not exactly. James hand-picked his interviewer (more on that later). He chose the setting. He also determined the business plan of the show. Williamson said part of the network's rationale to accept the agreement was to gain the exclusivity of the news, not unlike its decision to play ball with Tiger Woods prior to the Masters when it was allowed 300 seconds to ask the golfer questions.

Said Williamson: "Are we comfortable with the parameters that have been laid out? If we had a blank sheet of paper, maybe we don't draw it up exactly like this. But I am telling you that I, and ESPN as an entity, are comfortable where we ended up."

James's camp requested that veteran interviewer Jim Gray introduce the proceedings and ask the first couple of questions after the decision is announced. (The New York Times reported Wednesday that the opportunistic Gray told Carter at the NBA Finals that he wanted the first interview with James after his decision.) ESPN's Michael Wilbon will conduct a full-length interview with James after Gray is done. Analyst Jon Barry will also ask follow-up questions with James.

Despite his coziness to superstars (See Bryant, Kobe), Gray will undoubtedly ask the requisite initial questions needed, and Wilbon will cover the courting process and when and why the decision was made. Host Stuart Scott will do what Scott does and reporters will be stationed around the country. James will appear on satellite with Gray, and there will be no live audience at the site.

Of course the existence of the show puts ESPN's NBA reporters in a surreal position. On Wednesday The New York Times awarded a supreme silliness prize to the network for reporting that anonymous sources told an ESPN reporter that representatives for James contacted ESPN and proposed the idea of a dedicated ESPN special. (Not surprisingly, this turned out to be true.)

"The problem facing ESPN's reporters: If they scoop the network, they're in trouble," said Times investigative reporter Don Van Natta. "If they don't get the scoop, they fail." Williamson was asked repeatedly on Wednesday whether ESPN reporters had been given orders -- either directly or tacitly -- not to break the story prior to the prime-time special. He said that ESPN will not stop any of its reporters from reporting where James will sign, and that the network will report if other outlets break the news.

SI.com independently confirmed that ESPN's NBA staffers are free to report whatever they find in advance of the program and, after it was first tweeted out by Newsday's Alan Hahn that LeBron was leaning toward signing with the Heat, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that he confirmed the news with multiple sources. The problem for ESPN executives is that plenty of viewers now believe ESPN's reporters are part of the show. Those in Bristol need only to head to Twitter for viewer cynicism on display.

Still, there are journalism watchdogs who believe this is simply business in 2010. "We're now in a new media world -- and an economy -- in which we're often in uncharted waters and old conventions are being tested," said Tim Franklin, the director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, in an email. "As far as I know, ESPN is not paying LeBron for the interview, which would raise journalistic issues for sure. While this is unconventional, I don't see it as unethical, either. The money is being donated to charity, and newspaper sports sections sell ads around special sections pegged to news events. The difference here is that the news event is not a game, but an announcement."

Williamson said James's group did not buy time on ESPN's air, nor was any payment made to LeBron's camp. In one of the more remarkable exchanges during a 44-minute briefing with reporters, the ESPN executive admitted to knowing the location of where James would announce his decision (he said he did not know the team), yet would not give up that information to ESPN reporters."We let the news operation and the people chasing the news do what they do, and yet we are still running a business and we have business arrangements," said Williamson. "We're not going to cook the books. We pay people to be news-gatherers. That's their job. Church and state go both ways. It can't be when it's convenient. It has to be all the time and it has to go both ways. There's got to be a separation from the business side to journalism, and the people in journalism, the news-gatherers, can't expect to get added benefit because of the business operation."

In an effort to gain some added wisdom on ESPN's decision, I tracked down Le Anne Schreiber, whose tenure as the network's ombudsman from 2007-09 was equally praised by critics and viewers. Unfortunately, Schreiber has moved beyond the world of NBA free agency and did not feel comfortable offering an opinion. "I am not following where LeBron James is going, and you cannot imagine how willfully uninformed I am on this at the moment," she said, apologetically.

If only the rest of us were as lucky.

 
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