Last night, ESPN reporter Arash Markazi posted a very lurid, detailed account of a night out with LeBron James on ESPN.com, replete with naked nightclub biddies, lots of alcohol, and Big Baby Davis walking by in disgust.
It includes this exchange from the Willy Wonka of Feminist Hell:
About a dozen security guards, moving their flash lights, direct us to a roped off section on the dance floor of Tao next to a couple of apparently nude women in a bathtub full of water and rose petals ... James, who can hardly see the flying figure through his tinted glasses, almost gets kicked in the head on the waiter's last trip down. He looks at the girls around him and says, "I wish they'd have one of these girls with no panties do that instead of the guy."
So LeBron James does not come off as a tremendous person.
That's not the story.
The story is that ESPN pulled the whole post immediately. Now, as alternative sports media like Deadspin.com and Twitter are abuzz with this story, ESPN and all of its columnists and writers on Twitter are conspicuously silent.
Mind you, Markazi is a very reputable journalist, who has broken stories about USC recruiting violations, covered a few Stanley Cups, and profiled everyone from Wayne Gretzky to Ron Artest to Vince McMahon for Sports Illustrated. It’s possible he got the whole thing wrong. But it’s not probable.
So why did ESPN pull the plug on a story that could out LeBron as a terrible human being? The prevailing belief is that ESPN, which invested $7.6 billion on NBA television rights in 2007, is sacrificing its journalistic integrity to keep in good standing with its investment.
And as of mid-afternoon on Wednesday, ESPN has no comment.
Boston.com has the world’s best resource for anything involving journalistic ethics: Mark Leccese, the founder of the Globe’s Gatekeeper blog. He’s an ombudsman for those with a sense of humor or those in love with Adrian Beltre’s glovework. His last article, for example, is titled, "How to figure out who's really a journalist."
So, yes, he’s the perfect person to ask.
We presented him the article this afternoon, along with some questions. Here’s his reaction:
MARK: First of all: Wow. Not "wow" that James behaves badly (it's not that lurid actually, and I love the scene where Big Baby walks by, stops and looks, and then walks away shaking his head). It's that ESPN pulled the thing.
Let me think about this. And I'd be delighted to do a rare dual-post -- but I want to start by asking a question you didn't ask and answering it.
BEN: Why do you think ESPN spiked this post by a reputable journalist it employs?
MARK: I don't know, of course, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was pulled by ESPN's lawyers. The column is a libel suit waiting to happen. The journalist reports that James drinks a lot of champagne and that he makes at least one crudely sexist remark. I am not saying the column is libelous, but it certainly invites a libel suit, and lawsuits are expensive.
BEN: If everything in this story is true (which is still an "if" at this point, yes), how does that affect ESPN's credibility as a news-gathering organization?
MARK: If everything in this story is factual, and ESPN still spiked it even though it is a first-hand account by one of its respected journalists, then ESPN's reputation as a news organization becomes a joke. This small incident shows ESPN to be what most of us suspect it to be: an entertainment network that also reports scores and highlights.
BEN: If it becomes clear that they squelched a writer because it agitates the image of a league to which they own the $7.6 billion television rights, doesn't that throw them into the bought-access bin of Extra or Access Hollywood?
MARK: I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "bought access" network. It does report on sports organization with which it has no contract. I'd call it an entertainment network that doesn't want to do anything to anger the sports organizations -- and the stars -- that provide ESPN with its profitable entertainment.
But I'm not surprised. My friend, the late Jack Falla, a brilliant writer who spent years as the hockey correspondent for Sports Illustrated, once wrote a letter naming the 30 things Jack learned between the ages of 30 and 60. Number 19: "Sports broadcasters aren't journalists. They're Establishment."
BEN: What other reasons could they have for pulling this? The only other thing I could think of is this: They might be saving this for a slower news day, but it got posted anyway and spread like wildfire before they could contain it. That seems a little more ethically acceptable.
MARK: Fear of a libel suit from James. There is absolutely no chance ESPN was saving this for a slower news day. If you sit on a story, it gets flat. Other than fear of a libel suit, the only possible reasons to pull the story are 1) the editors don't trust the reporter (doubtful); and 2) to avoid offending James or the NBA.
BEN: Say you're an ESPN editor right now. You pulled this thing because you were told by an executive that you can't run it for the sake of your business relationship with the NBA and LeBron. How do you handle this? What is your public statement?
MARK: If you want to keep your job, you don't say anything. Maybe you gripe to the people you work with in a bar after work, but if you go public with it, you're fired.
BEN: This is a really big deal, isn't it? This one dumb, little thing on the Internet could really harm a major news organization. Isn't that fascinating?
MARK: Yup. It's a big deal. It exposes ESPN as a positive publicity machine for James and the NBA and damages its reputation as a news provider. It's not a little, dumb thing -- it is a manifestation of ESPN's corporate values.
Today's Soundtrack: The National - Fake Empire
Because, hey, maybe we've been duped all this time.
The author is solely responsible for the content.