A Year Later: The Awful Media Coverage of Kobe Bryant’s Death Is Still Unresolved
It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the one-year anniversary of the deadly helicopter crash that took the lives of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, two of her team mates and their parents, Alyssa, John and Keri Altobelli, Payton and Sarah Chester, and recruited girl’s basketball coach, Christina Mauser.
That fateful Sunday morning on January 26th, the group was headed to a basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park where Gianna, Alyssa and Payton were scheduled to play a basketball game with both Bryant and Mauser coaching.
The weather conditions were not favorable for flying, due to heavy fog and low hanging clouds in the Los Angeles area, which was a far cry from the clear, sunny skies at the departure point of John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Despite the Los Angeles Police Air Support Division and tour companies operating in the area, opting to stay grounded, until it was safe to take to the skies, Bryant’s pilot, Ara Zobayan who served as chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters proceeded to dangerously maneuver the aircraft further into zero visibility.
The helicopter crashed into the mountains of Calabasas with no survivors, leaving bereaved family members in shock and disbelief. Lakers Nation, stunned fans from around the globe, and Bryant’s counterparts in the industry he dominated, had to suddenly contend with the unimaginable and senseless loss of a five-time champion, who is dubbed “one of the greatest player of all time.”
The chaos and mayhem that ensued once the passing of Kobe Bryant was confirmed was a staggering demonstration of the state-of-affairs of the media-at-large, when it comes to the inflated and utterly reckless approach to news reporting, that relies heavily on the temperature of social media platforms for viral cues that diminish the quest for journalistic integrity.
The landscape of engagement is always messy, even when breaking news doesn’t disrupt the flow of disinformation and distractingly silly trends. And when shit hits the fan, it doesn’t take long for trolling to rapidly spread infection, hosting purposed offensiveness, that sadly includes verified accounts of notable brands.
In the midst of all the confusion, a political editor at The Washington Post thought it would be meaningful to tweet out the link to a Daily Beast article from 2016, covering the 2003 sexual assault case against then rising NBA star Kobe Bryant, which was dismissed after the accuser declined to testify. Bryant settled a civil suit for an undisclosed amount after publicly admitting that while he believed his contact with the accuser was consensual, he understood that she didn’t see it that way.
The WaPo editor believed Bryant was guilty of rape beyond any doubt, even though her claims are based purely on personal assessments of a revered cultural figure who had just perished under horrific circumstances.
The goal was to disrupt the growing memorial on Twitter by shaming inconsolable mourners, who were having a strong reaction to a death announcement that was still unfolding with pending details of the other passengers on the doomed flight.
The viral circulation of the damning Daily Beast article successfully began fiery debates about the art of bad timing and sensitivity issues around demonizing the newly departed, whose bodies are still waiting to be recovered from ground zero.
Aside from the inhumanness of the WaPo editor, who was ill-advisedly suspended for starting an activated nightmare that was unnecessary and cruel, before being reinstated when it was confirmed that she was only guilty of leading with hate, as opposed to basic human decency — ABC News also found itself in the crossfire of a costly misfire.
It stemmed from the sloppiness of the network’s chief national correspondent who wrongly reported on the air that all four of Bryant’s daughters were onboard the crashed helicopter.
Matt Guttman was promptly suspended for the unforgivable sin of confidently sharing unvetted information that exacerbated an unbearably painful event, for the thrill of being “the first” to endorse rampant rumors, that ran the gamut from Bryant’s ex-teammate Rick Foxx being wrongly identified as one of the dead passengers to a number of desperate theories that were unsubstantiated.
Guttman did release a statement of accountability in recognition of the abominable error that was aired without basic fact-checking, that would’ve prevented the crime of further traumatizing relatives in the throes of a real-life horror story, that had just begun to take hold, for viewership of captivated strangers.
But the irrevocable damage was done.
At least ABC’s top correspondent was apologetic about his very pricey snafu. The top editor at WaPo maintained her stance as the hero for survivors of sexual assault, who needed immediate cover from the triggering outpouring of love and sorrow for an undeserving celebrity, who was confirmed dead less than an hour before aggressive tweets about rape allegations were unleashed.
Regardless of whether or not she was sobered by the argument against her decision to lead the charge of vilifying the legacy of a dead man, who wasn’t found guilty, (a fact that’s debatable in the court of opinion, but still unchangeable by law), the editor in question was still victorious in garnering relevant attention that permanently reshaped the coverage of Kobe Bryant’s untimely passing.
Veteran journalist, and CBS News staple, Gayle King scored a sit-down interview with former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, just days after the three-time MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist suffered the devastating loss of a family friend and fellow baller, and was understandably deep in mourning.
In the first half of the interview, King seemed to be reasonably inquisitive about Leslie’s close association with Bryant, but things swerved sharply left with uncomfortable line of questioning that put the vulnerable interviewee on the spot, forcing Leslie to staunchly defend the integrity of someone who was not alive to defend himself from potential defamation.
The thunderous uproar from Gayle King’s inappropriate and salacious tactics that appropriated the viral conservation around the blast from the past, under the guise of classic journalistic comprehensiveness was swift and brutal, with unfortunate confirmation of death threats against the CBS anchor in retaliation for the insensitive interrogation of a visibly wounded target.
It didn't’ take long for CBS News President Susan Zirinsky to come to the defense of one of her own, by praising King’s contribution to the national discussion around a dead superstar’s boiling controversy in the aftermath of his recent death in a deadly accident that also took the life of his teenage daughter, Gigi.
“The interview with Lisa Leslie was comprehensive and thoughtful.” “We are a country where differences of opinion are welcome, but hateful and dangerous threats are completely unacceptable.”
Zirinsky is correct about the “differences of opinion” that separates those who believe Bryant is guilty of rape, from the ones who think he’s innocent with the added section of neutrals, who don’t know what the hell to think.
Gayle King’s interview skills were not up to par, and the tedious session with her gracious guest was anything but “thoughtful.” She coldly pushed for answers that couldn’t be supplied by a grieving friend, who was put in the unenviable position of addressing an ugly scandal that was prematurely revived in response to the ire of social media trends.
The CBS interview in the manner in which it was conducted would be effective today, a full year later, when speculative debates about what can’t be proven beyond a doubt, can be thoroughly hashed out with analytical pieces and podcast episodes, that leave audiences exactly where they started — more convinced than ever of their chosen interpretation of what transpired in their absence.
King had to bring up the sexual assault case because it was a viral sensation dominating the news cycle, thanks to the motives of the WaPo editor. However, she didn’t have to unfairly challenge Leslie’s line of defense by provoking its validity. Unfortunately that made room for the uneasiness of nagging doubt, on the same day that Bryant and his child were discreetly laid to rest, while bereaved relatives of the other victims were making similar arrangements, under the glare of a blinding spotlight they didn’t want.
Journalists are attack dogs, who sniff out a good story and go after it with gusto, leaving no stones unturned. But great journalists, who are well-respected for honorable trajectories, also understand the value in painstakingly evaluating each situation, accordingly, and making thoughtful decisions that are reflective of the urgency of the moment.
It’s the antidote for why “going there” must wait for a more receptive time and climate.
We need to bring back the good old days when social media wasn’t the indicator of how stories are molded for the consumption of the masses, who are sadly desensitized to the point of no return.
It’s not about protecting the reputation of a global icon who is “too perfect” to be held accountable for what he may or may not have done. It’s about the ongoing discussion around journalistic integrity, that can’t be allowed to end without an agreement of what’s right and what’s blatantly unethical, or at the very least questionable.
I’m not valiantly defending the memory of Kobe Bryant. I’m a disillusioned creative fighting for an ailing industry that I’m losing respect for with each passing day.
That’s it in a nutshell.