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Shows such as The Decision blur fans’ expectations of sports broadcasts

This is what worries me most about ESPN’s LeBron James debacle:

A call that came to my office late Friday afternoon, from a reader who couldn’t understand a newspaper column I’d written decrying the day of hype dedicated to King James – several fellow scribes called it a Lebronfomercial, arranged around his prime-time announcement Thursday that he’d be playing for Miami next season. I called it a sad example of the awful programming you get when dealmaking overcomes journalistic sense.

“Oh,” she explained, once I finished my spiel on how journalists should never allow sources so much control over their content. “I never thought it was journalism. It just seemed like promotion.”

That’s when I realized, maybe I was the guy who didn’t get it.

Washington Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who took over questioning James on ESPN after the interviewer handpicked by the basketball star was done drawing out the moment, admitted as much himself on CNN’s Reliable Sources media analysis show Sunday.

“I object to a lot of it as a sort of old-fashioned news person,” said Wilbon, who didn’t really explain why, if he objected to ESPN’s orgy of LeBron worship, he also participated in it. “But you know what? I’m living in a different world from most of the people who watch television, and I don’t know that people care about that as much as I do.”

Other commenters, weighing in on my Twitter and Facebook pages, made similar points. Why are you expecting ESPN to act like journalists? they asked sardonically. Entertainment is the first word in their name.

So perhaps it’s time. Time to stop fretting when ESPN hands an hour of its prime time over to a sports star, who picks the sponsors (for charity, of course!) and the interviewer.

Time to stop worrying about conflicts of interest when they guy picked to do the interview turns out to be the guy who gave the sports star the idea to do the TV special in the first place. Time to stop fretting when CNBC reports the guy who gave the sports star the idea to do the interview also was paid by an entity created by the athlete to develop the TV special (this story is denied by James’ interviewer, longtime TV sports journalist Jim Gray).

Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending ESPN is a vessel for sports journalism at all.

This will be difficult, because ESPN may be the biggest employer of sports journalists on the globe, set up in its magazines, TV shows, radio programs, national websites, blogs, locally-focused websites and more.

But in its conduct during the James special and softball questioning of Tiger Woods in his first post-scandal interview and in holding back on initial coverage of rape allegations against Ben Roethlisberger, ESPN has shown a brazen willingness to put entertainment values before journalism whenever the brands of big stars are involved.

Indeed, after watching Wilbon’s interview with James, I had a hard time understanding why the basketball star felt the need to have Gray involved at all. Wilbon didn’t press much harder than Gray; he certainly didn’t ask why James decided to turn his free-agency decision into a nationally-televised moment guaranteed to make him look like the sports world’s biggest narcissist.

When the journalists are willing to play along, why bother bursting the bubble with direct control?

ESPN, of course, is counting on its ubiquity and size to overcome any damage to its journalism brand. Their partnership with James yielded a show which drew nearly 10-million people – the third most-watched cable TV event so far this year. Executives there know however much traditional critics may squawk, when sports fans need another fix, they will likely turn to an ESPN platform, especially when they own big events like this one.

But the real problem here is for the real sports journalists left standing: guilt by association.

Once ESPN-style sports coverage becomes the most visible method, consumers like the woman who called me begin to believe that is the best definition of sports journalism. In the same way partisan pundit Bill O’Reilly now tops public polls on the media’s most trusted journalists, this brand of star-friendly sports coverage becomes the definition of what sports reporters do.

It’s a sad irony that this all went down in the same week that ESPN concluded its amazingly successful Word Cup coverage, which many analysts saw as a defacto audition for a bid to air the Olympics.

As a sports writer pal of mine noted, it’s not their World Cup coverage that fans will remember when they think about ESPN and this moment years from now.

The danger for today’s sports journalists, is that promotion — and not journalism — is what fans also think about from this moment forward, no matter who is delivering the next big story.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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