I was watching “Carlito’s Way,” a classic gangster movie, several weeks ago and took note of a plot-shifting scene between Al Pacino’s and Sean Penn’s characters. Pacino played Carlito Brigante, a former gangster out of prison trying to go straight, while Penn played David Kleinfeld, his lawyer. Kleinfeld murdered a mob boss and his son after promising to aid in the boss’ escape from prison, with Carlito only observing the betrayal and carnage.
Carlito then approached Kleinfeld and demanded that he admit he ripped off the mob boss, who was one of his clients. Kleinfeld admitted it, and Carlito gave him a short, real-talk speech: “You’re not a lawyer no more, David. You’re a gangster now. Whole new ball game. You can’t learn about it in school. And you can’t have a late start.”
The correlation of this scene to the topic at hand is a strong one, as ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith shifted completely away from the role that got him to his current status, and into a role that is counteracting the very significance of the reputation he was most lauded for. Defending the credibility of his reporting in a rant against impending free agent Kevin Durant, who called him a liar amidst his report regarding Durant’s free agency plans, Smith spoke rather openly and, in some ways, out of insecurity. From the perspective of viewership of his co-hosted show “First Take” with fellow critic Skip Bayless, his words were tart and unyielding. However, his journalistic makeup unraveled before us all, as his defense went from intense to unsettling, from his mantra as top-shelf ESPN reporter to ego-driven celebrity commentator, from our curiosity about how Smith develops his stories to our disappointment in realizing now that Smith is about being the story and not about reporting it. You’re not a reporter anymore, Stephen A. You’re an entertainer now.
As unpopular as it seems from a media standpoint, Durant was reasonably predictable in denying any rumors pertaining to him already considering signing with the Los Angeles Lakers next summer, due to still being a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Smith would be foolish to think that Durant would back up his report, true or not, and cause public turmoil within the organization. It only makes sense that Smith would cite unnamed sources “close to the situation” as the base of his reporting, which is a general method for countless reports in countless junctures. However, even as a 20-plus-year veteran in the journalism field – as he so boastfully reminds us every time – he showed a lack of journalistic prowess in his comments that followed, stating publicly that “I don’t need to talk to you to write about you.”
In the classic media sense, that is an epic no-no. The average reader of news typically expects direct sources to back up stories. Sure, we almost more than naught find our information through various outlets, but we don’t toot our horns about it. Smith’s braggadocious language suggested that he as a reporter will always be bigger than his sources, which is a complete tale-can-wag-the-dog theory. Breaking news, Stephen A.: Durant doesn’t need to talk to YOU. His associates and friends don’t need to talk to YOU. They have what you want, and that’s information; he can hold it against you at his own will.
Durant did have an anti-media tirade during the NBA All-Star Weekend earlier this year, saying some things that – I believe – were both damaging and truthful in some senses. There are some reporters that act like they know more than the source they’re covering, but Durant was wrong to assume all reporters and writers fall into that category of smart-ass. Smith, unfortunately, is leaning into that category, yet not completely. He’s a very accomplished reporter and television personality who has had his high points, but has also had low points. One of those low points involved his stance on the Ray Rice domestic violence case, for which he advised us all to acknowledge that women are often not held accountable to their actions that lead to such ugly incidents. While not condoning any women being hit by men, he already put a foot right to his mouth, speaking without filter in a politically-correct environment. He can represent himself all day, but he also speaks on an ESPN platform, which was the likely cause for his one-week suspension as a result of his words.
There’s no substitute for experience, but with success can come hubris. Smith’s experiencing that right now, as evidenced in his critical reaction to a very common situation for reporters. Initially, Smith’s report about Durant’s free agency plans was meant to bring attention to the future of this scoring machine, but Smith’s willingness to engage every conflict or spectacle in his direction, particularly this one, took that attention away from where it deserved to be and placed on it an undeserving subject: himself. Journalists have a responsibility to their community as a teller of events first and everything else second. Smith didn’t show such form in his obvious sensitive approach towards this situation and created an identity crisis from the eyes of the journalists out there that admire his work. Smith questioned Durant’s credibility, honesty and integrity in his response, but we must question the same out of him as a reporter. What is Smith presenting to us: the genius of his reporting or the power of his celebrity? There’s a fine line between the two, and that line is blurred from the eyes of this individual.
Bayless’ position is quite clear: he’s on television to draw ratings and psycho-analyze sports’ biggest moments and people. He’s no reporter anymore by any means. Smith, meanwhile, continues to toe the line between reporter and critic while disregarding the differences between the two realms. For the sake of his reputation, he has to choose one – much like Bayless did years ago. He can’t cover a story and be one at the same time; it’s professional blasphemy and journalistic skullduggery. And most of all, he must realize that the battles he fights with these sources over credibility is a war that he loses almost every time, especially when he fights back by literally striking back with threats such as “You don’t wanna make an enemy out of me.”
The last time I checked, we reported and written things with keyboards, not boxing gloves. Smith is being the very thing he vehemently opposes: personalities who think they can say whatever to whomever because of their stature. With media and sponsors breathing down his neck every second, it’s harder for Durant to have thick skin, but I’m certain he tries hard to maintain that level of tolerance. Smith’s reputation as a reasonable media member is based on how well he can manage his emotions under such scrutiny. A reporter/source relationship is a consumer-centric one; the source holds the key to a reporter’s practice being executed. Sources don’t need reporters as much as vice versa. From a plural standpoint, the world needs media, but it doesn’t need Stephen A. Smith every waking second. Any reporter can be refused. That includes Mr. Smith.
Smith entered this situation very rationally and professionally, reporting what he’s learned about Durant and bringing intrigue to an already-fascinating chain of events involving this heralded superstar. He came out of this situation a completely different person and from a completely different position. He became emotional within the confines of a professional situation that doesn’t lend consideration to his feelings. Smith became the thing he covers, and this “First Take” is all that we can see now. He’s a personality, an entertainer that is making things harder for journalism graduates like me to believe in him as a consistent professional in the field that we love so much. Smith may not want enemies, but his celebrity – not his journalistic background – will draw those enemies. Durant and others may not want to make an enemy out of him, but they certainly reserve the right to no longer make a dependable reporter and media member out of him, either. Like Smith tells those who challenge his very professionalism: Get over it, because you do no favors to your reputation by doing the same.