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Getting Schooled in Sports Journalism

Let’s hope media outlets remember what “E” in WWE means

The 24/7 news cycle is a grueling, unforgiving master that requires the ever-growing number of media news distributors to employ tremendous creativity and stamina. Filling every minute of the day with compelling programming is hard work, so it’s no wonder there are (many) times when networks, websites, publications and radio stations resort to gimmicks and sometimes silly stories in their quest for full coverage.

That’s why we see movie stars on TV sets and features on mascots or ancillary characters in some sporting storyline or other. Purists sure don’t like that kind of stuff, but it’s the price of getting round-the-clock sports. It can’t all be about the game, especially in a society that craves drama and would often prefer to hear about a spat between rival players than how Team X is going to overcome Team Y.

However, there is – or at least there should be – a line. It’s OK to conclude a broadcast with some silly pabulum, but when media companies decide to get a little too involved in the entertainment world, things can get dangerous. That’s what happened in late March, when ESPN (mostly) and CBS (a little) devoted some time to World Wrestling Entertainment in advance of the company’s WrestleMania show.

It began when ESPN “broke” the story that WWE star Brock Lesnar had signed a three-year deal to stay in wrestling rather than joining the UFC, and continued for several days through WrestleMania as ESPN personalities engaged in an on-air and social media blitz to help promote the performance. CBS’ Charles Barkley got involved when the network ran a list of his all-time favorite pro wrestlers, but this was primarily an ESPN show, as Michelle Beadle, Bill Simmons, Jon Gruden and Jonathan Coachman hyped the event. On the day of WrestleMania, ESPN used its SportsCenter Facebook and Twitter accounts to provide results and carried a full recap of the proceedings.

Since ESPN is the undisputed heavyweight champion of promotion, it was not unusual at all to see the company walking hand-in-hand with the WWE. What was strange was seeing how cavalier the company was about giving credibility to something that a few decades back had to declare that the outcomes of its matches were pre-determined. A highlight or two would have been reasonable. A multi-tiered approach to coverage veered dangerously toward an alliance with a large entertainment company in order to tap into its vast collection of fans.

Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch chronicled the WWE’s move into the mainstream sporting world and wondered why every media outlet on the planet wouldn’t find some way to partner with the sports entertainment behemoth. After all, as Deitsch pointed out, it’s good business.

But it isn’t good journalism. Viewers, readers and users already have enough trouble discerning what’s real news and what is promotional content, especially with ESPN, the master of blending the two into a self-aggrandizing stew. Giving WWE more than an occasional nod would be extremely risky, since the process would confer legitimacy on something that is clearly a show. What would come next, breakdowns of the previous night’s prime-time lineup? Coverage of the results of a movie’s sports storyline?

There can be no denying the impact of WWE and its carefully honed product. It has created a vast collection of stars and has survived strong competition (WCW), legal challenges (World Wildlife Fund and the federal government) and the embarrassment of having to admit publicly that its matches -– which it once insisted were not scripted -– were indeed not legitimate competitions. Surviving all that gives the WWE a cachet that would be quite attractive to another business. But ESPN and other media outlets aren’t just companies pushing a product, no matter how hard that may be to believe at times. They provide journalism, which is supposed to be clear of any outside bias or partnership.

We live in a time when that is practically impossible, at least at the highest levels. The business relationships forged by leagues, teams, conferences, schools and the media that cover them has blurred the line between reporting and promoting and given fans a product that more often resembles an infomercial than a news broadcast. Some call that the cost of entering the marketplace. If you want access, you have to pay. And if you pay, you don’t want to hurt the product you are buying.

Forging alliances with legitimate leagues is one thing. Trying to build an audience by making something that isn’t real sport seem more legitimate is far more cynical and potentially explosive. First comes the WWE. Then come full highlights of the Globetrotters’ next game. After all, that team has fans all around the world.

ESPN and others media members should make sure this flirtation with the WWE was a one-time event and resist the temptation to partner further with pro wrestling in order to increase audience share. It’s fun to talk about Lesnar and his fellow rasslers, but it’s not journalism.

And nobody should pretend it is.

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