The death of Kobe Bryant led to a massive outpouring of media coverage, social media mourning and public grief over the past 24 hours. For my money, the place that did the best job of this was the L.A. Times, which dedicated multiple pages to the former Lakers star. It covered the accident, mourned the loss, didn’t sidestep the ugly (even a photo from his “rape allegations press conference” made the inside page) and generally did a good job on a breaking news piece. The layout and headline treatments also reminded me why when it comes to a huge story, newspapers still can do it the best, regardless of circumstances.
(If the LAT is like any other newsroom I’ve ever worked or visited, I’m betting it was a pretty sparse crew on staff when all this took place on Sunday morning. Getting this kind of “flood the zone” coverage on a weekend in today’s gutted newspaper world says a lot.)
One thing that emerged in this breaking news cycle was to what degree the gossip news site TMZ was derelict in its duty as journalists when it published the news about Bryant about an hour after the incident. Officials chastised TMZ for its “very cold” approach to this, noting that families and friends of those who died had yet to be notified personally before the news broke. TMZ, for its part, has yet to respond to that aspect of its reporting, but it continues to publish on Bryant after breaking the story.
While it seems that professionals and the public alike are having a go at TMZ for its role in this situation, here are four thoughts that, while probably impolite, are both accurate and worth considering:
You’re never going to shame TMZ: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami took their shots at TMZ, noting that the publication was “extremely disrespectful” and “very cold” for reporting Bryant’s death this early. Others in the media also took to Twitter to add their condemnation of the decision to publish the information about an hour after the sheriff’s department received notification of the crash. Talking heads all over the place continue to cluck about how “this kind of publication makes us all look bad” and how TMZ “isn’t real journalism.”
Here’s an unfortunate reality: TMZ couldn’t care less.
This publication has made its bones (pardon the pun) on reporting the deaths of celebrities. It was first on the spot for the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince. It ran the Ray Rice “punch in an elevator” video, showing the former NFL player laying out his fiancee with a single swing and then dragging her limp body down the hallway.
Even more, here are a couple screen shots of things they ran just before the Bryant story broke:
And those were just two of the better and yet SFW ones available. Sleaze, mayhem, celebrities and death is what they do. A bit of side shade on Twitter from an undersheriff isn’t going to bring those folks around to the world of buttoned-down journalism.
Trying to make TMZ feel guilty is like trying to humble Kanye: It might make you feel superior to try, but it’s not going to work.
Most media folk won’t admit it, but they would have done it too: It’s easy for people who DIDN’T publish this first to say what they WOULD HAVE DONE if they HAD gotten the information first. It’s hard to say for sure what they ACTUALLY would do if put in that spot.
The old-guard media folks, who had three broadcasts or two newspaper editions a day, had more of a luxury to wait than current journalists, for whom a minute might be 58 seconds too late. Even more, I’ve seen what people get like when they get an exclusive story or find themselves at the front end of a scoop-able story. There’s not a lot of sober reflection and deep thinking involved, and far too often, people let the desire to get it first beat down their sense of human decency.
I’m not saying we SHOULDN’T aspire to being more humane in what we do. It’s just that the gap between the hypothetical and the actual is often a lot wider than we would like to believe it to be, especially when the actual makes us look bad.
(If you don’t believe me, watch about six minutes of a show like “Temptation Island” where “committed” couples explain how they’d never, ever, ever, EVER break up. In three minutes, Blake has left Ashlynn in the room to go make out with Trevor’s fiancee, JayCee, in the hot tub.)
The first story I saw was on another media site (not TMZ) that posted about 20 minutes after the TMZ news broke. Additional news outlets were also cranking out stories shortly after, each falling back on that original “as first reported on TMZ” notice.
(It’s amazing how quickly they all swept those stories away and those early notices once they could get their own sources and after everyone decided to pile on TMZ. If you look on various “mainstream” media outlets now, you’ll find no reference to how TMZ got there first, unless it’s to chastise TMZ.)
What I didn’t see, and might never see, is a timeline that tells me when the officials notified the families of the people involved alongside the information of when each media outlet published its breaking news story.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that TMZ wasn’t the only media outlet to push out a piece before everyone’s family got the word of the crash. That’s not to say this was appropriate, but it is worth noting that a lot of the “holier-than-thou” outlets clucking about the disgraceful state of TMZ probably ran as fast as possible to grab second place in the race to report the story.
The police couldn’t care less about the media 98.9% of the time: Both Villanueva and Murakami have a point: It’s better if the safety officials can do their jobs and notify people before the media does. However, and I can say this based on personal experience, if you are a media professional waiting for police, sheriffs, state highway patrol folk or other officials acting in an official capacity to tell you everything you need to know, it’ll be like waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last week.
If you look at the stream of stories on CNN, for example, you’ll notice that it identifies pretty much everyone on board. Even after those stories ran, the sheriff declined to confirm the identities of those people. If you check out the sheriff’s department social media even today, the IDs aren’t posted. You have people responding to the tweets and posts with more information than the sheriff is willing to divulge.
Journalists know that the police will release information in whatever time frame they feel to be appropriate and that in most cases, you’ll get more info seeking other sources. As much as the police have often said to journalists, “I know you have a job to do…” they also don’t make the journalists’ job a priority. At best, they see the media as something to deal with like paperwork and jock itch: annoying, problematic and part of the curse of being them. At worst, well… I’ve heard the phrase “the F—ing Media” so often from cops I know that I honestly wondered if we’d created a new branch of journalism. (Y’know, like the Space Force…)
This isn’t to say that journalism is more important than the work of police or firefighters or first responders or anyone else who runs toward danger to help people in trouble. It’s not. However, pretending that if the TMZ people had just waited five more minutes until the police called them and said, “We’ve notified the family, so go ahead” everything would have been fine is disingenuous and borders on laughable.
Did this actually happen? I have come to the conclusion that being a “non-denominational skeptic” places me in the awkward role of asking questions people don’t like to hear. However, in journalism, we’re taught that if your mother says she loves you, you should go check it out. Therefore, here’s the question:
Did Bryant’s family (or anyone else on the chopper’s family) get the news of the death from TMZ?
Murakami’s tweet seems to say so:
“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed. I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”
I can’t find any reference in a post, a note, a tweet or a story that says this actually happened. I saw press releases from various organizations, tweets from tons of people and at least two dozen stories on various “respectable” media sites, but I could not find a single statement that would corroborate this. TMZ isn’t saying anything, either, on this topic. (If I missed it, feel free to email it to me via the contact page. I’ll give you the credit for showing the world I’m a dipstick.)
You can easily respond to this with a “That’s not the %@#^%ing point, Vince!” statement, and I get that. However, consider these two equally valid concerns:
- If we’re not into the accuracy of facts when they fit the point we want to make, what the hell are we doing in this job? Sure, I get the idea that it would be horrible if I died and my wife got a call like this:
“Hello, is Mrs. Filak home?”
“This is Mrs. Filak..”
“Yeah, not any more… This is TMZ asking for a quote about the death of your husband five minutes ago.”
However, if we’re going to let the sheriff’s folks use “couldabeen” BS about TMZ’s actions to make a point, why not let them go all the way? Why not have them invent the tears in the eyes of the other Bryant children, as they heard the news on TMZ? Why not let them slather on the details of how Vanessa Bryant got the alert from TMZ mere seconds before her phone rang with the news from the sheriff? The point is, if something is accurate, use it. If not, don’t let people use you to perpetuate something that is not.
- As much as this was an easy slam for the sheriff’s folks to make, kicking a publication like TMZ, it wasn’t meant for TMZ alone. This is the media version of a brush-back pitch, in which the sheriff threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. The goal of a pitch like this is to let the media think long and hard about digging back in the batter’s box.
TMZ is gonna TMZ. We’ve established that. However, when the L.A. Times or the Orange County Register or the Pomona Tidbit or whatever else is out there gets a tip like this, the sheriff and his colleagues in law enforcement hope this kind of incident will get them to slow up or pull a punch. In most cases, the media outlets will react with a higher level of discretion than TMZ, I would imagine, but simply putting the thought of “we might be the bad guys” in the media’s head is enough to cause some concern. It’s like how people tend to drive slower once they see someone else getting pulled over by a cop.
In a speeding case, it’s probably a good idea. Here? It might be a toss up.