Monday, April 21, 2003

Media ethics vs. media critic ethics

Phil Mushnick, the New York Post’s sports media critic, must be gunning for a position on the Federal Trade Commission. He’s certainly mastered the art of taking a fairly trivial event and interpreting it in a wholly irrational light:

WHAT used to be known within TV networks as "standards and practices" forms, must've been turned face-down, stacked in a corner and now serve as scratch paper.

Dick Vitale, ABC and ESPN's lead college basketball analyst, recently revealed that he, along with Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, is the co-owner of a two-year-old thoroughbred, named Awesome Baby.

Of course, this creates both a per se and an outrageous conflict of interest, one that ABC and ESPN surely can't dismiss unless they choose to ignore - or trash - the most basic tenet of broadcasting ethics: You don't do business with those you cover.

But this is 2003, when the indefensible is, at best, ignored, and, at worst, given full approval.
The conflict of interest is not as self-evident—and certainly not as outrageous—as Mushnick proclaims. Pitino and Vitale make their living in college basketball, not horse racing. Vitale is also not a news reporter, but an analyst. In a given season, Vitale can be expected to cover only a handful of games coached by Pitino, whose Louisville Cardinals are hardly mainstays of national television. If there was a conflict, it could be solved by recusing Vitale from covering Louisville games. But there’s not even that much of a conflict. Since, as I just said, Vitale is an analyst, not a reporter.

Consider this: Most colleges hire their own broadcasters for basketball games. These broadcast teams, usually a play-by-play man and an analyst, are expected to provide objective (if somewhat partisan) coverage of games. Applying Mushnick’s logic literally, all of these college-paid broadcasters must resign as a matter of ethics, since their very employment constitutes a conflict of interest. Of course this is ridiculous. In this context, the conflict is irrelevant, since the viewing public is aware of the broadcasters’ employment status. Similarly, the publicity given the Vitale-Pitino endeavor mutes whatever minor conflict exists. It’s just not that important.

Mushnick’s explosive rhetoric further undermines his cause. To say Vitale’s action is a “per se” unethical act is irrational. In legal parlance, “per se” means guilty regardless of fact or context. It’s a favored tool of administrative agencies, like the FTC, which prefer to win their cases without having to actually prove their facts. In Mushnick’s case, it amounts to a smear—a unilateral declaration that no debate or discussion of Vitale’s conduct is permissible, since he’s been found guilty at summary judgment.

Having read Mushnick’s ravings for a few years now, I think his ethical condemnation of Vitale has little to do with any alleged conflict of interest. Consider this passage from Mushnick’s article:

Then again, perhaps ESPN's accustomed to indulging such conflicts. Vitale once had a sneaker deal with Nike, then, when his friend and Nike college basketball influence peddler, Sonny Vaccaro, left for adidas, Vitale switched to adidas, too.

But such a deal would never prevent Vitale from delivering one of his hard-hitting commentaries on the insidious role that sneaker companies and their oily reps play in the continued corruption of college basketball.
Vitale, in fact, has consistently taken the position that players should stay in college, rather than turning professional early. This position puts Vitale in opposition to the sneaker companies, which regularly attempt to influence players to enter the NBA early. Now, while I happen to share Mushnick’s disdain for the sneaker companies in this context, this has no bearing on an ethical discussion of Vitale’s business partnership with Pitino. What this sneaker example actually demonstrates, in my opinion, is Mushnick’s own biases: He’s upset with Vitale for not sharing his viewpoints on given issues, and thus he’s fair game for ethical condemnation on unrelated matters, regardless of actual context. If you ask me, that’s hardly responsible media criticism.

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