Wednesday, ESPN created a tempest in the sports media teapot by removing from its website a Los Angeles columnist's chopstick-by-Chap Stick account of LeBron James(notes) and several associates partying during a recent trip to Las Vegas. Thursday afternoon, the company announced it would not republish the feature, despite the fact that the story in its original form remains widely available online.
Its reason: ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi allegedly broke one of journalism's golden rules, and it'd feel grimy running with what it got as a result.
"ESPN.com will not be posting the story in any form," ESPN Digital Media Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Rob King said in a statement. "We looked into the situation thoroughly and found that Arash did not properly identify himself as a reporter or clearly state his intentions to write a story. As a result, we are not comfortable with the content, even in an edited version, because of the manner in which the story was reported. We've been discussing the situation with Arash and he completely understands."
Markazi communicated the same in a statement of his own: "I have been in conversations with ESPN.com's editors and, upon their complete review, understand their decision not to run the story. It is important to note that I stand by the accuracy of the story in its entirety, but should have been clearer in representing my intent to write about the events I observed."
For you legal eagles and "Law and Order" aficionados out there, the principle at work is basically fruit of the poisonous tree: When the source of the evidence is tainted, so's anything gained from it.
Markazi's supposed to make perfectly clear to James, fellow LRMR Marketing principals Randy Mims, Maverick Carter and Richard Paul, and the rest of the parties involved that he's a working journalist who's trailing them in a professional capacity, with the express intent of reporting what he sees in a story slated for publication by his media outlet employer. It's part of the gig. (Markazi, a reputable journalist whose work has appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and SLAM Magazine, as well as regularly on SI.com, surely knows this.)
If Markazi does that, we're all still making jokes about Bron-Bron popping invisible mid-range Js over slot machines. If he doesn't, then he's shooting dirty pool, and writing everything up as if James and company understood they were on the record represents a violation of a basic tenet of journalistic ethics. King says Markazi didn't. Such a violation constitutes a completely valid reason for King and the rest of Markazi's editors to spike the story. (The high-ground response could also be aimed at avoiding pricey litigation, if you're buying Emerson College journalism professor and Boston Globe Gatekeeper blogger Mark Leccese's contention that the column "is a libel suit waiting to happen.")
Of course, less than a month removed from the company's much-maligned broadcast of "The Decision," the hour-long special (and ratings colossus) in which James' clearly stated his intentions to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and properly identified himself as a new member of the Miami Heat, more than a few skeptical souls have theorized that ESPN's motivations for yanking and killing the story weren't quite so pure.
One of those nonbelievers, SBNation.com's Spencer Hall, offered his hypothesis after ESPN's initial statement claimed that a draft version of Markazi's piece "was inadvertently put on the server before going through the usual editorial process."
LeBron's people had something to say about this, and had a fit, and then reminded ESPN they are part of the editorial process. Story vanishes from their site down the memory hole, and another NBA player's people nixes a story off a website. [...]
His people called, not LeBron himself, and had the story pulled: this is far more likely than trained professionals editing and publishing a story accidentally. This is not what ESPN's official statement is, but again, we're not accusing them of lying here--just of having a very broad understanding of ‘the editorial process.'
ESPN's King addressed such criticisms in Thursday's statement. "To be clear, the decisions to pull the prematurely published story and then not to run it were made completely by ESPN editorial staff without influence from any outside party," he said.
Requests for comment by LRMR Marketing or its principals have gone unreturned. CNBC's Darren Rovell reported Wednesday on Twitter that "LeBron's business team [said] it had nothing to do with" the story's removal.
Of course, as is always the case, the answers just lead to more questions. Some stuff that's stomping my mindgrapes:
• Given the results of ESPN's investigation and the two statements released Thursday afternoon, will Markazi face disciplinary action? "We are not going to comment," the ESPN spokesman wrote. Deadspin's Tommy Craggs reported Thursday that whether or not Markazi gets suspended is "to be determined." Markazi's Twitter feed has been silent since July 27, and the last post on his ESPNLosAngeles.com "Behind the Velvet Rope" blog went up on July 24, before his trip to Sin City. That post features some famous last words: "I'll be back later with some more updates from my stay in Vegas. Well, as much of it as I can remember and won't interfere with me being gainfully employed when I return."
• Were any of Markazi's superiors — for example, ESPNLosAngeles.com Managing Editor Eric Neel — aware that he was going to be checking out James' Vegas weekend party for the purposes of reporting a story, or is the company calling this one a rogue action? No answer from ESPN on that one just yet, although in the July 24 "Behind the Velvet Rope" post, Markazi wrote (emphasis mine), "I'm here for a party I'll tell you about later but needless to say The Strip is already brimming with wannabe ballers, groupies and other assorted characters with USA Basketball in town for training camp and Saturday's USA Basketball Showcase." So it doesn't sound like it was a secret that he was going there to cover this thing.
• Sure, King's statement says the final decisions to pull and then spike Markazi's story "were made completely by ESPN editorial staff without influence from any outside party." But does that mean there was never any contact at all between ESPN staff and James' representatives? Again, no direct answer from ESPN ("As Rob said, this was strictly an ESPN editorial decision with no external influence") or from LRMR.
• What exactly goes into the "usual editorial process" for an ESPN.com story? Not much light shed there: "It depends on the story. As Rob has stated, this story did not go through the normal vetting process."
As you can see, ESPN's playing this pretty close to the vest, as you might expect. More information could come in the days ahead — the ESPN spokesman said Friday afternoon that company personnel "are still in the process of having conversations" about the incident, and Markazi's fate is not yet public knowledge, and may not yet be decided. We'll have to see how that plays out.
- Arash Markazi