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Opinion | What Sports Illustrated’s BotGate really means for journalism

If you still think of Sports Illustrated as a paragon of stylish longform journalism, I have two terrible pieces of news for you: 1. SI is down to just a few flimsy issues a year. It lurches forward mostly on online listicles and the last few people who think swimsuits are the apex of erotica. 2. Paid subscribers no longer receive a sneaker phone.

SI has been a zombie title long enough that it’s worth recapping why it’s suddenly in the news: Reporter Maggie Harrison of the tech site Futurism discovered multiple stories on that featured bylines with artificial-intelligence-generated headshots. Harrison then raised the very logical possibility that the stories fronted by AI-generated people were also written by AI.

The Arena Group, which leases the husk of the Sports Illustrated brand from an equally careless company, Authentic Brands Group, released a dubious statement claiming the stories were not AI-written and blamed the existence of the fake people on a contractor, AdVon Commerce. AdVon’s business model appears to be licensing crappy editorial pieces to lazy websites to run near ads you might accidentally click on. Oh, and its founder has bragged about his machine-learning and AI skills. The tl/dr version of this paragraph is: Yuck.

The members of SI’s union are outraged. Fair enough. It’s an outrageous time to be a journalist. Job cuts are constant. Truth is undervalued. The indignities are even worse when your bosses are very, very, very, shady. But — trade secret — journalists are good at outrage about the sanctity of journalism. We’re so good at it that sometimes we can get a little myopic. And while there are a lot of awful things happening in the journalism business, this particular use of AI might not be one of them.

First, let’s see if we can determine authorship of the SI pieces in question. Here’s a sample of “Play Like a Pro With The Best Full-Size Volleyballs” by definitely-not-a-person Drew Ortiz:

Volleyball can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with. You’ll have to drill in the fundamentals in your head before you can really play the game the way it was meant to be played, and for that, you’ll need a dedicated space to practice and a full-sized volleyball.

Prose this artistically dull can only mean there’s another posthumous David Foster Wallace novel coming. Or it was written by AI. Let’s presume the latter.

Why would Sports Illustrated want a story about full-size volleyballs? Scroll down and it’s clear that it isn’t a story at all. It’s a review of volleyballs with links to Amazon. These are what’s called affiliate links; if the user clicks through and buys something based on the article’s recommendation, Amazon gives SI a small commission.

It’s sad that Sports Illustrated is so desperate that it’s using fake people and AI text to get readers to buy volleyballs. This was once a great brand. Also: this seems like a terrible business idea? A sucker might be born every minute, but how many of them could possibly need volleyballs?

Still, you know what would have made the volleyball swindle even sadder? If a human had been involved. There are news organizations who’ve built honest service journalism businesses funded by affiliate links. The New York Times’ Wirecutter and New York Magazine’s the Strategist employ experts who write crisp copy and disclose conflicts. But if your organization’s premise is ‘Hey, we’re going to be a cut-rate parasite in certain places just to pay the bills,’ then isn’t it better to keep church and state as separate as possible? Shouldn’t humans do ambitious, unconflicted journalism and let AI do the grubby stuff?

To be clear, I’m not giving management at Sports Illustrated any credit for thinking this way. SI officials were obviously trying to get away with something and Harrison caught them. But these questions matter, because AI is going to force every profession to make choices about what turf it defends.

Every trade is a conspiracy. To the outside world, the difference between a background actor (formerly known as extras) and a person with spare time and a face is hard to understand. But the Screen Actors Guild decided background actors are skilled craftspeople, and its members fought hard to get them protections from being made obsolete by AI. The SAG had unique leverage in its last negotiation, but will law firms stick together when AI proves adept at low-level functions such as filling out personal injury demand letters? Will radiologists who map out complicated cancer treatments stand by their X-ray-reader colleagues when AI can diagnose a break faster and better? If we try to defend everything…

Read More: Opinion | What Sports Illustrated’s BotGate really means for journalism

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