• One Big Thing: Mark Cuban and the half-baked protest

    Mark Cuban has never been shy. It’s made him one the most famous member of his peer group and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Cuban eschew the stuffy rich owner archetype by being so engaged in Dallas’ affairs. He’s been good for the game in a multitude of ways, which makes last week’s little media dustup all the more surprising.

    For those who missed it, the Mavericks, presumably (i.e. definitely) at Cuban’s directive, revoked the credentials of ESPN’s Tim McMahon and Marc Stein. McMahon had previously covered the Mavs before taking on more league-wide assignments while Stein is the sport’s second most notable insider. It led many to question what Cuban’s rationale was- it didn’t seem like there was personal animosity with the two reporters, but issues with the parent company seemed more than likely.

    Before Cuban issued his statement, which we’ll get to momentarily, it seemed like a low road maneuver to punish two of the game’s best journalists for any issues with their bosses, especially considering that McMahon and Stein had never been unfair or overly critical of the Mavs to the public eye.

    Any complaints Cuban had with ESPN should’ve been confined to the appropriate levels. To make the jobs of Stein and McMahon more difficult came across as strong headed at best and petty at worst. There had to be more to this than met the eye given the fact that this news broke out of nowhere.

    As it turns out, Cuban’s move was a statement against what he sees as the growing trend towards automated reporting:

    “Maybe I will be wrong but I see a direct path from the trends in coverage of games we are seeing over the last couple years to the automation of reporting on games and the curation of related content.”

    On the surface that’s a strong statement that I happen to agree with a million times over. I might not be doing on-site reporting, but you’re reading the words that I slap together about basketball and for that I’m eternally grateful. The role of journalists and media is vital (he said, apropos of no particular recent event) though cost cutting measures have left many talented writers and reporters in search of steady work.

    Lists, gifs and videos are just the way things are headed. Maybe we’re already there. It’s hard to ignore the nature of virality on the internet given the way that content is currently evaluated. Clicks are king, and that’s made crappy slideshows more common than ever. True reporting and analysis will always remain the backbone of a worthwhile news outlet but the role of an old school journalist has grown increasingly nebulous as sites scrounge for eyeballs.

    Of course there’s also the fading spotlight of the Dallas Mavericks as The Worldwide Leader shifts its focus to more exciting, competitive teams. Surely that has nothing to do with it. But I digress.

    Far be it from me to tell anyone how to stage their own protest, but it does beg the question of why McMahon and Stein felt the brunt of Cuban’s message when they would clearly stand on the same side of the fence.

    Barring two excellent reporters from working Dallas’ home games only seems to push decision makers towards automated content. Not having a face in the room certainly limits your options, and if you’re so opposed to the idea of automated game reports then why give ESPN’s higher ups a chance to test it out?

    It seems wrong to punish McMahon in particular, who was moved off the Mavs beat for a more high profile job. Upward advancement in this line of work isn’t thrown around freely and it’s quite clear that he made the jump on merit. The fact that it potentially came at the expense of Dallas-centric coverage is no reason to take it out on McMahon.

    Luckily things were resolved by the end of the week, with Cuban and ESPN President John Skipper releasing joint statements on the matter.

    Essentially, Stein and McMahon are back in the good graces while ESPN restates their commitment to use on-site reporting.

    In the end, this looks to have been nothing more than a warning shot from Cuban. Maybe not even a warning shot- just a preemptive notice of “I really dislike the idea of automated reporting.” That’s all well and good, and Cuban’s point is both valid and valuable.

    But what if ESPN hadn’t been so eager to work with Cuban? What if the ban lasted longer than five days? It goes to show that while the intent is there, the actions themselves were basically pointless and half-baked.

    There’s a saying about how you shouldn’t poke the bear and while the stakes are much lower I think its essence applies here. I just don’t get why Cuban would go out of the way to draw attention to a practice that those punished by his protest aren’t engaging in. It’s like telling a kid not to eat candy for breakfast- they probably weren’t going to, but now that you brought it up the idea is floating around up there.

    I respect Cuban for trying to protect and preserve the practice of on-site sports journalism. It’s a worthy cause to take up, but I’m just not sure what the intended outcome was on this one.

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