For most of the last month, the biggest story in the NBA has been a mystery: Why hasn’t Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving been vaccinated against Covid-19? Irving, who at this point reporters are practically required by law to describe as “mercurial,” has been outspoken about many issues, from racial justice to flat earth theories. But on the matter of the Covid-19 vaccine he has hitherto been oddly silent, despite the extraordinary implications of his decision: Not only could his absence cost his team a shot at the title, it could also cost him millions of dollars, possibly even hundreds of millions. Irving would be barred from playing in Brooklyn by New York City’s vaccination regulations, which means he stands to lose at least $17 million—and because he wasn’t going to be playing, the Nets had reportedly tabled a massive contract extension worth much much more.
On Tuesday evening, that mystery was finally solved—sort of. Shams Charania, The Athletic’s resident NBA scoophound, cracked the case. According to his report, written in tortured prose even by his dismal standards, Irving wasn’t being held captive by misinformation or a fear of needles. He wasn’t even concerned about how the vaccine might affect his conditioning. Instead, Charania wrote—citing multiple unnamed sources—Irving was neither “anti-vaccine” nor “anti-science” but had instead embarked on a quest that was “bigger than basketball.” That quest: serving as a “voice for the voiceless” against vaccine mandates that he felt were unfairly costing people their jobs. Irving was, per Charania, “challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood, according to sources with knowledge of Irving’s mindset.”
While every piece that Charania writes becomes a dogged adventure for his readers, it nevertheless takes very little time to realize Irving’s position is, at best, nonsensical. For one thing, job losses related to vaccine mandates are a recent—and still relatively rare—phenomenon that have only impacted a small number of people. Irving’s own decision not to get the vaccine long preceded their existence. Moreover, the “voiceless” are quite well represented. One need only turn on Fox News or listen to any elected Republican official speak for a couple of minutes to see that they have more than adequate representation. Besides, if this really was Irving’s rationale, he could have easily said so weeks ago and we could have put this matter behind us without several weeks of charades. Now Irving’s actions should be understood as a sort of trial balloon: the soft launch of a justification he had belatedly reached for not getting the vaccine into the P.R. sphere. In Charania, he found a credulous reporter who would serve as his mouthpiece—as long as it got him a “scoop” he could publish a few minutes before another reporter.
In fairness, this is Charania’s job. It’s a useless one, but his manner of reporting dominates the largest and most influential sports outlets—and, for that matter, news outlets—in the country. Charania is there to weasel his way into the confidences of powerful people and then push their viewpoints, however untruthful or far-fetched they may be, as news.
His prose style—and I’m using that term loosely—weirdly attests to this. Many of the strings of consecutive words Charania assembles, and that The Athletic’s editors seem willing to accept as English language sentences, make very little sense at all. Here is one representative example: “Irving has made more than $160 million over his NBA contracts and has a massive Nike shoe endorsement deal, so those who know Irving understand he is not driven right now by money, nor cares for inheriting more, but rather the stand for larger issues in his mind that need his support.” As part of an account that might make this story legible for readers, it is an utter failure. Where it succeeds, however, is the crazed way it loads as many P.R. talking points into one place—making it the ideal vehicle for shoveling his sources’ viewpoints into print. We haven’t learned a thing about Irving, but Charania gets to tout this balderdash as news for a few minutes before it ascends into the ether. He gets to be first, and his sources don’t face any critical inquiries. This is how the system works, and it sucks for almost everyone.
Charania’s expedition into Kyrie Irving’s publicity needs wasn’t the only example of this corrupt symbiosis on display this week. ESPN’s NFL scoophound Adam Schefter found himself facing similar criticisms after a Wednesday report in the Los Angeles Times surfaced a 2011 email in which Schefter sent an entire, finished draft of a story about the then-ongoing NFL labor lockout to a source, in this case someone serving in a high-level role on the management side of the dispute: Washington Football Team general manager Bruce Allen. In his email, Schefter wrote, “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked. Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am.…”
It’s worth dwelling on the fact that he referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor,” because it tells you everything you need to know about this relationship. This was a significant story about an ongoing labor fight, and yet Schefter gleefully handed the final edit rights to a major figure involved in that battle. There’s a good reason why reporters are not supposed to send stories to a source before publication: Those sources tend to want stories to turn out a certain way (that is, favorable to their side); a journalist’s job is to provide something more complicated and truthful than one person’s subjective viewpoint. But Schefter violated that rule because violating that rule is, essentially his job. Like Charania, he needs immediate access to powerful sources so that he can do the thing that’s become his stock in trade: firing off scooplet-enriched tweets before anyone else can. It’s a silly game: It hardly matters to the public that these bits of news get reported a few minutes early. But “fast” is the only unique quality that Charania and Schefter bring to the job.
This, of course, is more the fault of the people who write these reporters’ checks. In both cases, you see the perverse market incentives, handed down by bosses, warping journalistic values. Much of what passes for sports reporting is just a furious hunt for tiny advantages that probably don’t provide a lot of substantive information. What’s the news value of being the first to publish the hare-brained thoughts of an NFL general manager or whatever odd ideas are flashing through Kyrie Irving’s brainpan? In both instances, these P.R-as-news accounts actively inhibit more thorough and important work—work that enriches an ongoing conversation or provides key insights for the benefit of a reader. Reporters who strive to shape their stories in a manner that would please a self-interested party at their center are doing something different. Whatever it is, it’s not journalism.