Remember that uptick in WWE coverage, particularly from ESPN, around Wrestlemania? It’s raised the hackles of Michael Bradley, a columnist on SportsJournalism.org (the website of Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center). Bradley writes that mainstream sports media outlets shouldn’t be covering professional wrestling because it’s entertainment rather than sports, and that by increasing their coverage of WWE, they have the potential to “confuse” viewers:
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?
First off, the initial incident Bradley complains about, and the most significant coverage ESPN gave to wrestling recently, is something that’s indisputably sports news. That would be Brock Lesnar announcing his decision to stick with WWE instead of a return to the UFC, which happened live on Sportscenter. Saying ESPN “broke” that story is an attempt to diminish it, but it’s highly significant sports news; many thought Lesnar would return to MMA (which is pretty indisputably a sport at this point), and his decision was covered by every sports media outlet that has any interest in the UFC. Claiming that this was merely entertainment news and promotion for WWE is completely false.
Beyond that, this is tremendously insulting to ESPN’s viewers. First off, Bradley really thinks ESPN viewers have trouble separating the network’s news from its promotional content? You’re saying that people think the ESPN “car washes” for whatever actor has a movie coming out this week are actual news? Or that some see Sportscenter’s scores and Outside The Lines’ in-depth pieces as promotional content? The discussion of promotional content in news is an interesting one, especially in print and online mediums where we’re seeing more sponsored content that’s closer to traditional editorial content, but it’s not a particularly difficult distinction in televised sports news, and unless Bradley has proof that ESPN’s coverage was paid for by WWE (which seems highly unlikely, and would be a scandal that might have some merit), what happened here was the network deciding to cover something it determined was newsworthy to sports fans. Arguing about how newsworthy professional wrestling is today is valid, and if Bradley had just said “I don’t think ESPN should have devoted so much time to WWE,” fine. Claiming that this is some sort of subtle advertorial miles away from the sports world that’s only included to deceive viewers is a heck of a leap; claiming that viewers are going to see ESPN covering WWE and conclude “Oh, its outcomes aren’t predetermined!” as a result is an even greater leap.
Suggesting that covering “entertainment” is inherently poor journalism is also ridiculous. Some of the greatest journalism of all time has been about entertainment figures; Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” in particular is widely celebrated as a pioneering piece of “New Journalism” that pulled off incredible feats without direct access to its subject. Would Bradley say that covering Sinatra was “getting too involved in the entertainment world”? Whether something is good or bad journalism isn’t about the subject at all, really; there have been incredible pieces written about exceptionally mundane events, and terrible pieces written about events of world significance. In fact, what’s particularly hilarious about Bradley’s piece is that he completely fails to mention the best, and most journalistically thorough, piece that arose around Wrestlemania, Denny Burkholder‘s remarkable CBS profile of Andre The Giant. The only mention CBS gets in Bradley’s story is about Charles Barkley (who isn’t even employed by CBS, but was on their airwaves as part of the Turner/CBS NCAA tournament joint broadcasts) briefly discussing wrestling. It’s funny that a guy calling out wrestling coverage as poor journalistically didn’t take the time to find or read an incredible piece of journalism about it on the website of one of the networks he ripped.
Sure, you can potentially have a debate just how much play ESPN and other sports networks should give wrestling. Yes, most WWE stories are not technically sports news (other than exceptions like Lesnar) if you’re proceeding under a strict definition of sports that excludes events with pre-decided outcomes like the WWE’s. However, while the E in WWE may stand for entertainment, so does the E in ESPN; that’s shown through sites like Grantland, which specifically cover elements of the entertainment world.
ESPN is under no obligation to only cover traditional sports, and there’s a huge amount of crossover between fans of more traditional sports and fans of professional wrestling, so including some wrestling stuff makes sense for them, and the way they did it seemed to make sense from this standpoint; the Lesnar story, which had sports implications beyond wrestling, got full SportsCenter play, while everything else was mostly about ESPN personalities (who can follow whatever they want!) and social media. There are plenty of more problematic coverage decisions and conflicts of interest at the Worldwide Leader than this.
Even if you think ESPN gave WWE too much coverage, though, just make that argument. Don’t say that ESPN viewers can’t identify what’s sports and what’s entertainment, or that coverage of entertainment isn’t journalism. Those are unsustainable leaps. ESPN’s coverage of WWE won’t be to everyone’s liking, sure. That doesn’t automatically make it free advertising of something that isn’t related to sports, and it doesn’t automatically make it poor journalism. The confusion here doesn’t lie with the viewers.