When the AI scandal at Sports Illustrated broke a few days ago, I initially wrote something about it but then decided not to publish it because (a) it’s not uni-related and (b) saying anything critical about SI at this point kinda feels like punching down. But then a bunch of readers got in touch to ask what I thought of the situation, so I’ve decided to publish something after all.
Disclosure/reminder: I wrote a decent amount for SI in 2019, first as a freelancer and then, for about seven weeks, as a staff writer. My SI archive is here. When SI was sold in October of 2019, I was among 40 or so employees who were laid off by the new owners (thereby making me the answer to a sports media trivia question). Most of the people I worked with at SI were let go at the same time I was, and most of the remaining ones have left since then, although I see that one editor I worked with is still there.
Anyway: In case you missed it earlier this week, Futurism writer Maggie Harrison had a devastating report on how a bunch of articles on SI’s website — product reviews, mostly — were apparently written by AI. The articles, many of which included laughably bad writing and formatting, included phony bylines for non-existent authors, complete with AI-generated author head shots that were easily traced to an AI stock photo source. As Harrison wrote, the incident “marks a staggering fall from grace” for the once-celebrated media outlet.
SI issued an incomplete and unconvincing denial, saying that the articles in question — which were scrubbed from SI.com shortly after Harrison’s story was published — were produced not by AI but, rather, by a third-party vendor to which SI had outsourced some of its content (a questionable practice to begin with). SI said the vendor had used phony bylines “to protect author privacy” — a nebulous statement that raises more questions than it answers and for which SI provided no further explanation. The whole thing sounds really tawdry and pathetic. Get the full story by checking out Harrison’s excellent article.
So what do I think? For starters, this is just the latest evidence that I dodged a bullet when SI cut me loose, because the situation there has apparently become more toxic and ethically suspect by the day. (In case you’ve forgotten some of the previous nonsense, look here and here.)
This is the part where I’m supposed to say, “This is so sad. I grew up reading SI and remember how much I looked forward to each issue. They did world-class journalism for years, and now it’s come to this.”
But let’s get real: That SI, the one that so many of us grew up with, hasn’t existed for a long time. SI still has some good writers on the payroll, most notably Tom Verducci and Pat Forde, but at this point it’s basically a zombie brand, a hollowed-out shell whose old identity exists primarily in name, logo, and memory, not in substance. Since 2018, SI has been sold twice. Its current owner, the Authentic Brands Group, isn’t even a publisher. ABG collects legacy brands and added SI to its portfolio because it envisioned opening a bunch of SI spas, SI hotels, SI restaurants, SI gyms. (That hasn’t exactly worked out for them — shocker — and the decline of SI as a respected media operation surely won’t help.) Since ABG isn’t a publisher, they license the publishing operation to a bunch of VC-backed dude-bro douchebags called The Arena Group (formerly TheMaven), whose CEO previously faced multiple workplace accusations of sexual harassment and creating a “frat house environment.” Although an internal review cleared him, he admitted under oath that he ranked the “hotness” of female colleagues and openly speculated about whether one female co-worker had a side job as a stripper and/or had slept with another co-worker.
When you look at all of that, this week’s report about SI publishing AI-generated content — and then blaming it on a rogue vendor, which is barely a step up from “The dog ate my homework” — isn’t so surprising. On the contrary, it’s perfectly in keeping with what this organization now is, and we should expect more of the same in the weeks and months to come.
It’s worth noting that SI isn’t the only media outlet that’s looked at AI and thought, “Hey, now we can publish content without having to pay those pesky writers!” These adventures have generally not gone well, at least so far. Gannett, which owns a few hundred newspapers across America, decided to “pause” its use of AI a few months ago after a bunch of AI-generated sports reports went viral for all the wrong reasons. Less than two months later, Gannett was fending off accusations of posting AI-generated content on its shopping website. Other outlets using AI in ethically dubious ways lately have included the A.V. Club, BuzzFeed, CNET, Gizmodo (another place I’ve written for), and others, as desperate publishers flail about in search of a viable business model in the era of internet media.
On the other hand: An AI-generated swimsuit issue would likely be extremely entertaining, so let’s hope SI gives that a shot. Hey, no need to pay those pesky models and photographers! What could possibly go wrong?