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Sports Illustrated illustrated

The cover story of this week's Sports Illustrated is about, well, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Sports "journalism" has always been somewhat bemusing, and more so in recent times, but this seems noteworthy, somehow.

No doubt I'm wrong about that — and I hope you will forgive me for the otherwise perfectly good words expended here. But part of me wonders if SI (as the magazine refers to itself) and other big sports media outlets like ESPN actually do anything that "legitimate" media outlets (as those who pretend there's still a difference between the news industry and the entertainment industry like to think of it) wouldn't do if they could get away with it.

ESPN, for instance, has been running TV commercials featuring many of the top sports stars it covers for years now. Marcus Camby and Kevin Garnett and even Lance Armstrong all have intimate ties to SportsCenter (ESPN's sports news show) and ESPN The Magazine, the ads depict (in jest) — they fool around with the news anchors, and (in Armstrong's case) power the SportsCenter studio, generating electricity via a stationary bike in the basement. ESPN's website even has a This is SportsCenter page, featuring the ads for the show.

Of course, any outside relationship between a news source and a key player in the news it covers would be considered improper in any other news area — not to mention if money and services were exchanged. Imagine, if you will, an advertisement for CNN featuring, say, Bill Clinton buddying up with the news crew and personally giving CNN branded fleece pullovers to news watchers. The only thing that would exceed the humor value would be the inevitable outrage expressed by watchdog groups and politicians.

But the news media still loves to talk about itself, and how it influences events and society. If they could get away with it, I imagine news outlets would jump at the chance to advertise for themselves using the celebrities they cover (star power attracts money, in news just like in anything else), or the way their coverage itself is newsworthy. They'd love the chance to puff up their own significance, either by casting themselves as buddies (or masters) of the stars, or big players in the game itself.

Take the SI story, for instance. The idea that appearing on their cover is a jinx has been around since before my time, and, athletes being intensely superstitious about everything related to their sport, it's bound to perpetuate itself. (It's interesting to note that the most common explanation a victorious athlete will give for his or her success is God's support — so if this jinx has any reality then the editors at SI must be powerful indeed.) But it amounts to nothing more than an inside joke, with no bearing on anything. SI's choice to put it on its own cover says nothing so much as that its editors think the magazine itself is bigger news than the sports it covers.

It may be good business for SI, but it's bad for the news, and its readers.

Update: The LA Times was far more sympathetic in its coverage of SI's self-reporting.

January 18, 2002 4:38 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer


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