I’m not sure how many jeffpearlman.com readers saw this, but the other day E:60, ESPN’s fantastic news show, ran a lengthy piece on Schuye LaRue, the former University of Virginia women’s basketball star who (poof) seemed to vanish from the face of the planet.
Shelley Smith, the longtime ESPN reporter and a colleague I have tremendous respect for, took viewers on the search for LaRue, who back in the early 2000s was the ACC Player of the Year and a no-doubt future WNBA superstar. The journey ended on a bench in Washington, D.C., where LaRue—homeless for years—was found. She is broke, aimless and suffers from diagnosed schizophrenia. In multiple interviews over a few years, Smith introduced us to a LaRue who was—at varied moments—confused, awkward, lovely, content, scared and, ultimately, angry and anxious. Off her medication and actively psychotic, she spoke in rambling diatribes, blathered about past teammates and opponents in ways that made no sense, demanded money (from Smith) that had never been promised. In short, she was not all there.
As a person, I was heartbroken.
As a journalist, I was uncomfortable.
Before I delve, I want to emphasize something twice: Shelley Smith is a pro’s pro, and I admire her to the moon and back. I mean that. No bullshit.
In the case of this segment, however, I thought the network exploited a person who deserved no such fate. An individual suffering from schizophrenia and off medication cannot determine whether she should or should not appear on television. Why, earlier in the day—purely by coincidence—I listened to a podcast interview SI.com’s Richard Deitsch conducted with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. The two discussed a segment Tom did on a young New England Patriots fan who was dying of brain cancer. Richard asked that Tom break down the process, and he explained how the child’s parents were always in the room to make sure they were comfortable with the questions. It was the only righteous approach.
Well, a 10-year-old boy is almost certainly more capable of comprehending what is being asked than a schizophrenic off her medication (as LaRue is). Making matters worse, ESPN reached out on multiple occasions to LaRue’s mother—who wanted nothing to do with the segment. Shelley even went to her house, and was turned away. In other words: We don’t want this.
Deitsch interviewed Russell Dinallo, the segment producer, for his Media Circus column, and this really jumped from the screen:
Um, no. No, no, no. I spoke at length with my wife, a seasoned social worker, about using someone with schizophrenia (and off medication) in this manner, and she was dumbfounded. Catherine actually evoked last year’s crushing appearance on Dr. Phil by the actress Shelley Duvall, who also suffers from the disease. It was the lowest of the lowest of the lows—a hack “doctor” scoring ratings by milking a sick person’s illness.
Was the ESPN segment at that level? No. Was it wrongheaded? Yes. Despite Dinallo’s words, LaRue is incapable of making the decision to appear on TV. The words “This is for my ESPN story” matter not. The disease does not work that way.
Now, to be clear, journalism is an inexact science, and anyone in the field long enough has done things he/she is not proud of in the name of landing a story. Hell, I’m certainly no exception. And when ESPN (or those who enjoyed the piece) justifies the piece by saying, “It was important to shed a light on the awfulness of schizophrenia,” well, I can hear my voice making similar past arguments.
But it just doesn’t fly. If you’re going to use someone to illustrate schizophrenia, it can’t be a person unable to fend for herself.
This was not righteous journalism.
It was a sick person knowing not whereof she spoke.