Any athlete, celebrity, politician or public figure who talks to mainstream media in 2010 or beyond is desperate, an idiot, or is saying nothing of any journalistic value.
It’s called media bypass. In journalism terms, media bypass is the process of cutting out the middleman, in this case mainstream media. The source talks directly to the consumer.
The messenger – journalists and other media – are cut out.
And disturbing. But more on that later.
OK, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me slow down and more clearly explain what I mean by media bypass, which I consider one of the most fascinating and interesting media phenomenon happening today.
I’ve talked my wife’s ear off about media bypass for about a year and a half. Feb. 18, 2009 to be precise. That was the day NBA star Tracy McGrady announced on his blog that he was having surgery and his season was over. He didn’t tell the general manager of his Houston Rockets, who would have called a news conference. He didn’t tell the team’s media relations department, which could have crafted a press release. He didn’t tell his one or two favorite beat reporters, who would have broken the story and watched it spread like journalistic wildfire.
No, McGrady told the readers of his blog. He told his fans. Directly. He later apologized to the Rockets organizations (again through his blog, in a post titled “My apology“) but it was too late. McGrady had attained more control over a major story than any athlete in modern American athletics.
In the short-term, he did not risk his message to interpreters (beat writers, PR departments, team officials, etc.). He controlled his own message. The only thing he didn’t control was consumer reaction, but if that’s the only thing you don’t control, you’re in pretty good shape. Sure, his story was probed and analyzed by traditional media, but only after he released it the way he wanted it released.
McGrady became the blueprint for how all public figures should handle major announcements, at least those who want to maintain reasonable control. He executed media bypass. Theoretically and practically speaking, it was brilliant. We can debate ethics in a different blog post, but even then, whose ethics are we talking about?
I’m reminded of McGrady especially now as LeBron James prepares to knock the world off its axis. He is preparing to decide which NBA team he will lead to the second round of next year’s NBA Playoffs.
This afternoon sports and media websites reported that LeBron had joined Twitter. His humble Twitter handle: KingJames. His first message:
Hello World, the Real King James is in the Building ‘Finally’. My Brother @oneandonlycp3 gas’d me up to jump on board so I’m here. Haaaa
If he even wrote that himself – which I’m not convinced he did – I’m sure he ran it by his publicist first. Either way, Twitter is a direct link to the fans. Clearly, Mt. LeBron is starting to rumble. He’s not just prepping for an NBA ring. He’s preparing for a multimedia explosion.
In one of the more confusing “scoops” I can remember, ESPN is reporting that sources are reporting that LeBron will announce his decision on an ESPN special Thursday night.
Even as I write this, LeBron’s longtime beat writer, Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, easily one of the 10 best beat writers for a team sport working today, seems to be having something just short of an emotional epiphany/breakdown in real time. Writes Windhorst via Twitter: “Suddenly it is clear to me. LeBron has changed. A new website. Starting Twitter. This announcement. This isn’t the guy I know.”
LeBron owes Windhorst nothing beyond basic human respect. John McCain owes those who cover him nothing but basic human respect. Brad Pitt, Will Smith, T.I., Tina Fey, Rush Limbaugh, LeBron James and on and on and on. Nothing.
Journalists of the world take note: public figures don’t need us anymore. They don’t need our TV stations and newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts.
They will do our job for us. They won’t do it as well, nor will they do it as ethically, but they have the tools and the know-how. It’s a scary proposition for those of us in the news business (and, yes, it is a business). Our goals should be truth first, followed by social justice and profit. The goal of public figures is image creation and maintenance. Yet we all share the same technological tools.
LeBron James will tell his Twitter followers and the readers of his website and the interviewers who ask pre-approved questions exactly what he wants them to hear. “I am picking Team A for reasons X, Y and Z.”
Journalism producers and consumers sit at the beginning of the media bypass era. It makes me wonder whether journalism education should shift its focus from training good journalists to training people how to consume media thoughtfully and analytically. There’s gonna be a lot of bullshit to sift through.
The gatekeepers – the journalists – have been knocked down and trampled. The gate has been knocked over.
Media bypass. Now what?