Reality Steve: A Lesson in New Media Ethics

PREFACE:

When I lived in Dallas 10 years ago, I had the great pleasure to be an adjunct profession at the University of North Texas. They needed somebody to teach media/journalism ethics in the Radio-TV-Film Department, so my syllabus was focused almost entirely on ethics in a new media universe and not old-school journalism. My students would for the most part be working in new situations that greatly complicate ethics, so I called my course:

ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING IN THE MEDIA
(JOURNALISTIC ETHICS IN A NETWORKED WORLD)

This course will be unlike any you’ve ever attended for two reasons:

  1. Journalistic ethics are evolving. Tradition and the sacred canons have served us well for nearly a century, but technology and business disruptions are dismantling the institution of professional journalism and the companies that host the trade. In various academic circles, efforts are underway to address this evolution, one of which culminated in a gathering in September of 2008 at Kent State University. There is a sense that we are making this up as we go along, and no one should be afraid to admit that. As a result, we’re going to be teaching each other and learning from others involved in the process together.
  2. As a thought leader in the industries of local media, I am at the forefront of the changes taking place. My clients are dealing with issues in the real world of media that we will be discussing in this class. Therefore, this will be an opportunity for you to participate in a process that is current, topical and relevant. In the end, you will have a significant advantage over your contemporaries who haven’t experienced this class.

In the end, you will have learned how to make complex ethical decisions that will help you in any media endeavor and beyond. Ethical decision-making is critical in American society. Learn it and it will serve you well in work and in life.

And, so I provided ethical situations for discussion that involved a single journalist functioning in running their own brand, whether that was with others or alone. My thesis was that running your own blog or similarly functioning website providing news and information was a veritable minefield of ethical difficulties, because students would be their own owners, publishers, editors, writers, marketing managers, and distributors.

The following essay is a contemporary story of exactly what I was talking about all those years ago.

REALITY STEVE

Let me introduce you to Steve Carbone, known publicly as Reality Steve. A former sports radio guy, the 45-year old Carbone began spoiling the ending and other details of the television series The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in 2011. You can take a man out of the sports talk show business, it seems, but you can’t take that business out of the man. He writes often of gambling trips to Vegas and loves the entirety of sports betting. This is important to understanding his work, because sports gamblers need resources to work with, and Steve has pursued revenue over any thoughts of ethics, one of the many things we talked about in my class.

When you’re responsible for the money and the content, you will face ethical difficulties. There’s a reason, for example, that local media doesn’t take on the car dealers in any market. Too much money’s at stake, and so there’s an unwritten rule in newsrooms that you just don’t investigate car dealers. For individuals competing as media sites, this issue is doubly complicated, because growing such a business demands a degree of ethics not required by professionals working for a media institution.

Carbone’s website is RealitySteve.com, which he brands as “My Slanted, Sophomoric, and Skewed View on the World of Reality Television.” He is vulgar, inflammatory, fame-hungry, loose with the truth, a gossiper, and damned effective at spoiling the show for his followers. I’ve been a fan since the beginning, because, as a fan of the show, I’ve always found it better viewing when I knew how it was going to end. In fairness to the guy, he’s also been the most vocal voice about the manipulation of producers in reality television, which followers could then watch play out every week. When the New York Times “discovered” him at the end of 2015, his fame skyrocketed, and it seemed that he could do no wrong.

Today, we’re learning that Carbone has done a great deal wrong in the execution of his strategy for revenue growth, chief among them being the creation of artificial drama by spreading partially-cooked rumors that have caused embarrassment and far worse among the show’s contestants. By publishing false accusations as fact, Carbone created an image as extortionist among this group of people. His “friendship” with contestants was based on their fear of him writing something untoward about them, and for this, he’s claimed ignorance.

Contestant Jade Roper was relentlessly hammered over her participation in a Playboy photo shoot before her appearance on the show. Carbone used every opportunity to paint her as a whore. When Jenna Cooper became engaged on Bachelor in Paradise, Carbone published what turned out to be a false accusation that she already had a boyfriend back home. The support “evidence” he used was laughable. He used his connections to arrange a phone call with contestant Demi Burnett in which he told of a sex dream he’d had about her. In the past few weeks, Reality Steve has been outed now as a misogynist, a bully, careless, ruthless, and reckless.

He was naturally all over the story of Matt James’ “winner” Rachel Kirkconnell and her upbringing as a white Southern belle who never considered the grave implications of participating in behavior now considered racist. This was especially problematic considering James was the first black male lead in the show’s history. They were both overwhelmed and hounded by horrible accusations, and they fled to private locations to talk and work things out. Enter Steve Carbone, who’d received an email from a woman in Florida with evidence that James was looking to hook up with her just days before traveling to New York to meet with Kirkconnell. Carbone personally engineered passing this information along to Rachel through her family, thereby setting the narrative that James was cheating on her. Others described him as “creepy,” including Kristina Schullman, a contestant who reported numerous inappropriate contacts with her.

For his part, Carbone has apologized profusely and claimed that he’s changed his ways. He says he’s no longer the misogynist he was, and that these things were from long ago. He’s also publicly stated that he will no longer have personal relationships with contestants, something any observer of the press will recognize as a slippery, slippery slope to begin with.

He’s a victim of believing his own hype, which is the Achille’s Heel of contemporary journalism, whether you’re a gossip columnist, a neighborhood blogger, or covering the White House for the New York Times.

The earliest indication of problems with the guy appeared to me many years ago, for in earlier times — before the NYT article — I used to help him with proofreading and making corrections for his site. I had early interactions with him over the usability of his website and urged him many times to fix issues related to the pop-up ads from which he was making money. These ads occurred one on top of the other and made it nearly impossible to read the blog content. His Twitter feed was filled with complaints that his site was unusable. I even offered him the name and contact information for a WordPress expert who could help him. He refused, because despite the endless complaints from readers, fixing the problems would’ve impacted his revenue.

So today, Carbone finds himself a toxic influence on the Bachelor franchise. He’s shunned by everyone now, and nobody knows what will happen with both the franchise or Reality Steve. He badly needs to stay relevant, even though the rules of media life are changing. You simply can’t get away with this kind of behavior any longer, because we’re all connected, and we can speak to the same people to make things right. In this sense, he is a textbook example of what I was teaching 10 years ago.

According to Ms Burnett, Carbone asked her to keep his sex dream a secret. This far into the #metoo movement, did he really expect she would? Media ethics in a networked world are especially important these days when fallacy seems to have been a regular product of the old world.

Let this be a lesson to all my students and the rest of the media world. In the quest for self-support, be careful not to set yourself up for a big fall.

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