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Saturday, November 29, 2008
The Press Provokes Unnecessary Controversy Between LeBron James and Charles Barkley

Does today's journalism environment naturally provoke reaction or is provocation itself the real aim? Today's attention-grabbing news headline (and it's all over ESPN this morning), "LeBron James Calls Barkley 'Stupid' for Criticizing Him," demonstrates that oftentimes it's the latter. Apparently, Charles Barkley commented on Dan Patrick's radio show that James isn't showing respect for Cleveland fans and his teammates by discussing his possible free agency following the 2010 season, and said "If I was LeBron James, I would shut the hell up." Thereafter, an AP reporter cornered James to provoke a response to Barkley's comment, to which James responded, "He's stupid." In tomorrow's paper, we will undoubtedly hear about what Barkley has to say about James' response. Oh boy, I can hardly wait.

Forget about who is right or wrong in this media-created tiff. Is this a proper function of journalism? Does journalism ethics even exist today? (and I don't mean to ask that question cynically) Some would dismiss journalism ethics as creating ambiguous standards. Some would say journalism ethics are outdated concepts in an internet/technology era. Some would say the press is just giving the public what it wants. Some would say that this is information and, therefore, the public should have it (even if it is purely entertainment, in other words, "infotainment"). Some would go so far as to say that journalism ethics is a meaningless topic in light of the First Amendment. And some have no idea what journalism ethics issue is even at issue in this press release. As noted by the Committee of Concerned Journalists:

“Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map....a journalism overwhelmed by trivia and false significance ultimately engenders a trivial society.”

In my recent law review article titled, "Tort Law and Journalism Ethics," which will be published by Loyola University Chicago Law Journal in the spring, I discuss the negative impact of the proliferation of tabloid journalism into the mainstream news media and how today's tabloid journalism oftentimes seeks to promote and instigate negativity and negative reactions among the subjects of the article as well as the readers of the article. Here, the press is primarily motivated by one thing: to provoke an unnecessary controversy. The media pits James against Barkley, causing readers to join in the negativity and to ultimately draw a conclusion that one of them is right and the other is wrong (i.e. that either Barkley is right that James should "shut the hell up" or that James is right that Barkley is "stupid"). What does society gain from exposure to such negativity and bickering? Unfortunately, as long as today's profit-driven mainstream news media is primarily motivated by advertising dollars and a quest for ratings it will keep feeding us more of it in the form of infotainment.


The press is not to be trusted anymore. If I were the player I'd cut them off.
Ken Stepp

Blogger k -- 11/29/2008 1:40 PM  

So let's get this straight. LeBron makes statements that, had they come from a GM would have amounted to tampering,* Sir Charles calls him out on it, and the only response James can come up with is "He's stupid."

And now you're whining that LeBron was quoted accurately and completely?

He could have kept his mouth shut in the first place. He could have said, "No comment." He could have laughed. Instead he responded, and his response was "He's stupid."

No one provoked the unnecessary controversy. James was asked a question and voluntarily gave a response that was quoted accurately. Which leads to a rather inevitable headline, about which you seem to be complaining.

No one made up a quote. No one gave James sodium pentathol, or waterboarded him into answering. No one did anything other than their job--if you're not counting James's original, distracting comment.

Should the press not have quoted James correctly in the first place? Should Sir Charles have pretended James didn't say anything? Should they not have quoted him correctly in the second place? Unless you're arguing that one of the first two questions should be answered "yes," complaining about the third is disingenuous.

*"I think July 1, 2010, is a very big day," James said when the Cavaliers were in New York. "It's probably going to be one of the biggest days in free-agent history in the NBA."

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 11/29/2008 3:49 PM  

I think we tip-toe the point. How did LeBron say "He is stupid"? Did he say it angrily? Did he say jokingly? That doesn't sound like an answer LeBron would give directly. LeBron The Brand doesn't like conflict (see his initial stand on Darfur, or lack thereof).

As far as the press is concerned they definitely want a black/white yes/no issue. They want to divide the readership. They want to dumb a story down to good and bad. Then they can do polls and surveys and talk about those. Then the analysts can analyze and the pundits can ponder. It happens in politics and now sports.

Blogger Jordi -- 11/29/2008 11:43 PM  

I find it quite hard now to give so much trust to the press. Sometimes, they are really conveying details and information which are not that really accurate to what is the truth.

Anonymous Informixx -- 11/30/2008 8:04 AM  

Ken H.,

Your comment pretty much sums up the point of my post. By the way, my post has nothing to do with quoting Barkley or James accurately or completely.

First, as I said in my post, this article causes readers to join in the negativity and side with one against the other. You are obviously choosing to side with Barkley because you completely dismiss Barkley's telling James to shut the hell up and you actually justify Barkley's comment by saying that Barkley simply "called him out on it." [And I don't understand your tampering comment at all, even if the statement had come from a GM, but that's neither here nor there.]

Secondly, it's interesting how you are now doing to me what Barkley essentially did to LeBron. I said nothing about you (and furthermore you don't know me and I have no idea who you are), but you feel the urge to say on the blog that I'm "whining," "complaining" and being "disingenuous" -- analogous to "shut the hell up". My sense is that if you did know me, and you and I were having a face to face discussion about this issue, you wouldn't talk to me that way (and I'm speculating, but my guess is that Barkley and James wouldn't say the same things to each other in person either). Which relates back to the question I raised in my post: what does society gain from this negativity and bickering that the press seeks to promote? I actually think it has an influence on us and how we interact with people.

Finally, I disagree with you that this situation was not media-created (or "provoked" as I described it).


You raise a good question that I hadn't thought about. If James said it jokingly then it would certainly raise a different (and an additional) concern about the press quoting accurately. But the press is giving every indication that James said it angrily, as opposed to jokingly, in response to the press asking him about Barkley's comment. However, your question raises an interesting point how the media's creation of this unnecessary conflict could potentially be detrimental to his "Brand" as you put it -- one more reason for us to question the impact of this type of reporting.

Regarding your point about the press wanting to divide readership and dumb down stories, the question we need to decide is what can we do about that? As long as we keep making excuses for the press' continuous disregard for media ethics (and I provided many examples of those excuses in my post), it will actually get worse than it is now from an ethics standpoint. Another common excuse that I failed to mention in my post would be a concern over censorship. But this has nothing to do with censorship at all; it simply has to do with the press acting credibly and responsibly (i.e. what the press chooses to report and the manner in which it chooses to report it).

I discuss in my law review article how the increase in competition, advances in technology (getting the story out there first) and bottom line economics in today's journalism environment give the press no incentive whatsoever to be credible and responsible (and arguably give the press an incentive NOT to be). A survey of journalists completed earlier this year is really disturbing because an overwhelming number of journalists themselves expressed that their number one concern is that economic incentives today are having a huge influence on their reporting more so than it ever did. If you think about it, the economic model has switched from subscriber-based to advertising-based revenue generation (we no longer have to pay for our morning papers because it doesn't cost us anything to get it on the internet). If the revenue is generated primarily through advertising dollars, and advertisers are interested in the most attention grabbing stories or those that will get the most hits, what types of stories do you suppose the press will publish? It used to be that if we wanted the tabloid stories we had to pay $3.00 for a magazine, now journalism has discovered that it is actually profitable to publish it in the mainstream media. Now, you can say let the market determine all of this, but journalism is one unique industry in which market forces and the law do not necessarily encourage or reward ethical behavior.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 11/30/2008 8:15 AM  

Ken --

You miss the point, which is that Rick Karcher is the best arbiter of what the media should say (and what consumers should listen to), since they're incapable of making "correct" decisions for themselves.

Anonymous Rachel Neri -- 11/30/2008 3:20 PM  


I don't want to be the arbiter of media ethics, but I do believe that somebody should because journalists have zero incentive to conform to any ethical behavioral standards. Like doctors and lawyers, journalists learn in journalism school about all of the ethics rules that govern their profession. But unlike lawyers and doctors, there is no independent body that regulates them. It would be like teaching doctors and lawyers about ethics in school, and then telling them to go be ethical when they graduate (expecting them to sufficiently regulate themselves out in practice with no oversight).

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 11/30/2008 6:52 PM  

Only college professors -- people who are generally insulated from market forces and the need to provide a useful service -- would sit around and demand the creation of an "arbiter of media ethics" because they are personally unhappy with the fact that some people have the audacity to exercise free speech and free press rights without the state's sanction. It's both laughable and sad.

Anonymous Rachel Neri -- 11/30/2008 10:36 PM  

I agree with Rachel Neri. How humorous and predictable that yet another academician should propose yet another way to mediate / control / oversee the public discourse. That's all we need, another ombudsman position. Funded by tax dollars as well, I presume. The idea of yet another watchdog is laughable on its face! What *won't* you academics conjure up in your endless quest to make yourselves relevant?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/30/2008 10:42 PM  

The media has clearly moved far beyond their "useful" purpose. They have now become capitalistic nightmares. The media is driven by shock value and profits. Perhaps one day everyone will realize, as I did some years ago that the media cannot possibly portray our lives accurately. An accurate portrayal of everyday life would certainly kill their ratings.

Unfortunately for the sports industry, they rely heavily on the media. In that regard I think sports and those professional figures employed in this area are stuck with the media's unnecessary tendencies.

I always wondered if "tabloid" journalists wake up with a sense of accomplishment. Can anyone speak to this issue?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/30/2008 11:13 PM  

Rachel and Anon 10:42,

You're making many assumptions that are not accurate. 1.) I'm not insulated from market forces in my job as a professor (I work for a for-profit institution and have never worked for a not-for-profit or state institution);
2.) Most college professors would actually disagree with me;
3.) I didn't say that the govt. should be the arbiter of media ethics nor that the arbiter should be funded by tax dollars, nor would I want it to be;
4.) I don't want to take away our First Amendment/free speech rights, nor do I want the govt. to tell me that I can't think or speak about all of my unorthodox thoughts (and in fact I would be the first one to stand up for you if it did), and I don't want to ban violent video games, X-rated movies, tabloid magazines, etc.;
5.) I believe in capitalism because it provides all the appropriate incentives, quality goods and services, and efficiencies; and
6.) The one thing I do agree with you about is that I try to make myself relevant (hopefully everybody tries to do that in some way, shape or form).

The debatable issue here is really No. 5. Most providers of goods and services do not have ethical obligations. If you buy a computer from Dell, it has no ethical obligation to you. Dell exists solely to make a profit -- and that's a really good thing for society. Dell is subject to various laws that protect you and the quality of its product (e.g. you have recourse if it doesn't work or if it blows up and you are injured). Therefore, Dell has an incentive to produce a safe quality product. If Dell doesn't, then market forces will direct you to a different supplier.

The problem with today's media environment is that journalism ethics is colliding head on with market forces much harder than it ever did before. Also, using the Dell example, the law is inconsistent with journalism ethical obligations in many ways. For example, the press has an ethical obligation to seek the truth but defamation law says that the press just can't knowingly publish false information (about public figures). Another ethical obligation of the press is to evaluate and consider the privacy of citizens, whereas the law says that the privacy interest is balanced against the newsworthiness of the information and many courts hold that the press gets to decide what is newsworthy (which in effect swallows the privacy tort action).

So I think the various positions on this issue fall into three categories:
1.) You don't believe in media ethics or don't believe that journalism ethical standards should exist (perhaps because they conflict with the First Amendment);
2.) You believe that there should be ethical standards but that the market can effectively regulate it; or
3.) You believe that there should be ethical standards but question whether the market provides the appropriate incentives to effectively regulate it.
My response to number one is that the justification for the First Amendment shield increasingly becomes weaker as the press loses credibility. And I think it's getting more and more difficult to support the No. 2 position.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 12/01/2008 9:23 AM  

Wow. I didn't expect that post to lead us here.

It sounds like Rachel assumes that having a ethics council for journalists would be a regulation on the industry. Would it? I think this is the wrong issue to advocate for the position that journalists should be regulated at any level. Unless the journalist who approached Lebron in a way which enticed him to make the "he is stupid" comment, I don't see any unethical conduct.

At the same time, it is pretty disgusting the way the media works these days. The most disgusting example in sports was a couple weeks ago when journalists (many of them) cornered Kobe Bryant and tried to get a controversial response from him on the "Kobe/Shaq" issue. Kobe has figured them out, though. He knows that he really doesn't want to say anything bad about Shaq. HE DOESN'T EVEN CARE!

In the end, it looks like there is a league of journalists (not all of them) who align themselves with the paparazzi way of gaining information.

As a stepping stone towards ethical standards for journalists, an ethical exam could be a manageable requirement.

Anonymous Ryan Ballard -- 12/01/2008 10:59 AM  


I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving and I look forward to reading your article. To follow up on one of Ryan's points, I'm still a little unclear as to the ethics issue raised in the Barkley/Lebron James situation. Was Barkley, in his role as a member of the media, acting unethically by telling James to "shut up"? Or, was the reporter unethical in conveying to James that Barkley had told him to shut up?

Anonymous Gabe Feldman -- 12/01/2008 1:16 PM  

Thanks, Gabe, and likewise. Ryan, hope all is well.

I agree with Ryan that this issue doesn't present the ideal test case for breach of media ethics (but it's at least debatable) because it doesn't involve a privacy issue or inaccurate information. However, media ethics is not limited to just privacy and accuracy. I question the reporter's motive in interviewing James. I think the reporter had one goal in mind, which was to provoke a controversy that would be a big sell to the public. Barkley says something on a radio show, and it would have just ended there (and we wouldn't even be discussing this) had the reporter not then used Barkley's comment to inflame James. So in other words, I think the journalist's conduct is what created the situation that lead to a headline. Granted, I think there is a fine line between investigating facts and publishing them vs. a journalist creating the facts so that he/she can publish an entertaining story for the public. To me, the latter belongs in tabloid publications and doesn't belong in the mainstream media (and I understand that's debatable). If the response is that the media has effectively blurred the line between tabloid and traditional news, then I think that's a problem for a variety of reasons. Journalists have an ethical obligation to be responsible in making determinations about whether to report something as well as the manner in which they report it.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 12/01/2008 2:29 PM  

Rick, good point regarding the line blurring. I think the only line that has blurred is the method of gaining information, not the way it's reported...yet.

Anonymous Ryan Ballard -- 12/01/2008 3:01 PM  

I'm not in love with the idea that "the press" is a single entity. I'm part of it, but I would never in a million years bait someone into trashing someone else just for a sexy headline. (YES journalism ethics exist.) Yet the language of the criticism -- careful in all other respects -- lumps all journalists together for a flogging that really only applies to a few. In fact, that's one of the journalistic ethics I try to follow religiously: If you're going to criticize someone, do so with precision.

Anonymous Henry Abbott -- 12/01/2008 3:18 PM  

Thanks, Henry. I have relationships with some good journalists, and your point is well taken. [I'm not good about prefacing my statements with "Not all journalists act this way but..."] Do you have any suggestions about how to handle the "few"?

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 12/01/2008 3:34 PM  

Rick, I feel you're doing a little provocation creation yourself. Your use of the word "cornered" to describe how a reporter approached James is a bit dubious. I'll readily admit to not knowing or seeing video of how the reporter actually approached James to get that response, so please correct me if I'm wrong. However, I have a hard time believing that 6'9, 260 lb. James, who has been handling the national media since age 17, was in any way "cornered" by a reporter. You make it seem as though James had no choice but to respond as he did, and that he was pressed into an answer.

Any chance you're trying to provoke a consumer-media tiff?

Blogger Stephen -- 12/01/2008 9:49 PM  

Rick - I agree with your post and subsequent comments. As a former journalist for several outlets (print, online, media relations) I feel that it comes down to one thing - sportswriters are lazy. Players bickering is the "easy" story. It requires less work than the challenging job of breaking down trends, stats, X's and O's or digging deep to find a human interest story about a ball boy or trainer. My favorite "move" these days is when TV will go into a commercial break with the teaser of "Is Deion Sanders considering a return??? Stay tuned" only to see, upon return, one of their reporters ask Deion "So are you going to return" followed by his simple response "No, I am not considering that whatsoever." It's all about generating content at any cost (quantity over quality)

Anonymous Anonymous -- 12/01/2008 11:50 PM  


I didn't use the term "cornered" in a literal sense as if the reporter physically denied James access to the court unless he answered the question. And I'm not sure how to answer your question about whether I'm trying to provoke a consumer-media controversy. Perhaps you can tell me what relevance that has to the issue of journalism ethics so that I can better understand your question and properly answer it, because I can think of many reasons why it's not relevant. But I'll wait to respond until you tell me why you think it's relevant.


I always find it ironic (or perhaps disturbing) when journalists themselves actually relate to what I'm saying. What sparked my interest in writing my law review article was the number of journalists in a survey this year who expressed concern about how bottom line economics and market forces are having a huge influence on their reporting more so than ever before. I am considering doing some empirical research of my own, in the form of anonymous interviews/surveys with journalists, as a follow up to my article and I would be interested in hearing from you. (

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 12/02/2008 10:24 AM  

Oh, I'm not entirely sure my point is relevant to your question. I do think your question is laced with an underlying motive (and yes, I understand the worries with questioning motives), that being that the trend to make provocation the aim of journalism is a negative thing. Seeing this (again, perhaps incorrectly), I thought it appropriate to point out that your choice of words are arguably used for the same effect (provoking).

Now, I understand that, as a blogger, you aren't expected to conform to the same journalism ethics as the "mainstream" media (although this blog is about as mainstream as sports law blogs get), but I think it's worth pointing out when it appears as though someone is using the very tactics he is (arguably) criticizing.

Hope that made sense. By the way, love the blog, and love your writing.

Blogger Stephen -- 12/02/2008 3:12 PM  


Do you, by any chance, happen to know who Secret Dubai (the blogger: is?

Blogger whoissecretdubai -- 12/03/2008 4:39 AM  

it does seem to me somewhat like the press looking to fan the flames of some controversy, which doesn't really seem all that significant.

Anonymous Zachary -- 12/10/2008 5:41 AM  

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