Monitoring the media coverage in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday has provided yet another reminder of the importance of knowing whom to trust and whom to dismiss in the chaotic real-time matters of major breaking news.
Monitoring the coverage also had a more poignant effect. It got me used to watching familiar faces do their jobs through tears.
The coverage got off to a chaotic start Sunday, as various outlets — most notably ESPN/ABC and NBATV — sifted with not always ideal accuracy through the rumors in search of factual confirmation of the critical details. The chaos was understandable, and frankly, unavoidable, in part because of where the report originated.
TMZ has broken numerous stories about celebrity deaths, including Michael Jackson’s in 2009. The first sports tragedy I can recall it breaking was the death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2009. But it has been wrong about major “scoops,’’ too, including a report in 2013 that rapper Lil Wayne was critically ill and receiving last rites. (He tweeted not long after the report that he was just fine.)
TMZ’s dubious methods and approach to sourcing leave plenty of room for skepticism, and when it was just that site reporting Bryant’s death, millions of basketball fans clung to that skepticism. I believed the news only when ESPN master NBA newsbreaker Adrian Wojnarowski reported it on Twitter at 2:51 p.m.: “Kobe Bryant is among those dead in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles, a source confirms to ESPN.”
Kobe Bryant is among those dead in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles, a source confirms to ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 26, 2020
But before that, the race to confirm the accident and provide details became a confusing mess, with everyone demanding real-time information that just wasn’t available.
ESPN cut away from the NFL Pro Bowl after the news was confirmed, going to ABC News for a report. Reporter Matt Gutman made the inexcusable mistake of speculating that Bryant’s four daughters also were aboard the helicopter. He later apologized with a video clip on Twitter, but I can’t imagine anyone that cared about Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who also perished in the crash, or any of the seven other victims would care to accept it.
Over on NBATV, a Magic Johnson highlights package was airing when the news broke. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in waiting for it to break in with coverage, but it’s worth remembering that the personnel there were staggered too and desperately wanted to get it right. Eventually, host Matt Winer came on, and Bryant’s former teammate Brian Shaw joined him, talking through tears about his friend.
Shaw, as Celtics fans will remember, also was a close friend of Reggie Lewis’s when he died in 1993, which he mentioned during the broadcast.
It must be acknowledged that the Los Angeles Times took a responsible, measured approach to this massive story in its city. A tweet came at 2:36 p.m.: “We are aware of reports about Kobe Bryant and are currently investigating. We will update here as soon as we can confirm anything.”
Monday’s day-after coverage was better, steadily mournful and thoughtful, even if the news still didn’t seem quite real. The authentic reactions of the hosts surely helped connect with viewers dealing with the same sorrowful confusion.
Hannah Storm, ESPN’s afternoon “SportsCenter” anchor, stemmed tears as she talked with colleague Cari Champion about Bryant and a shared memory. Elle Duncan, formerly of NESN who has come into her own as a “SportsCenter” anchor, cried as she told a particularly moving story about a conversation with Bryant in which he proudly called himself a “Girl Dad.”
Tracy McGrady, who grew close to Bryant as a fellow high school star who leaped straight to the NBA, dabbed at tears beneath his glasses as he talked on “The Jump” of recently reconnecting with Bryant at their daughters’ basketball games.
It must be noted that Monday’s episode of “The Jump” — a show that consistently captures the fun zeitgeist of the NBA — was exceptional. Host Rachel Nichols was joined by Richard Jefferson, David Fizdale, and rapper/actor Ice Cube in the studio. McGrady and Lakers executive Jerry West, who heisted Bryant from the Hornets during the 1996 NBA Draft, checked in via video. The tone of the show felt like being at a wake among particularly articulate and thoughtful friends.
More than anyone I’ve seen or heard since Sunday, it was Ice Cube who put Bryant’s cultural impact, particularly in Los Angeles, into context.
“This city has a lot of fault lines,’’ he said. “Not only in the ground, but with the people. What brings us together is the love for our teams. . . . It gives us something to unite behind. It’s gang-banging, it’s economic differences, it’s racial differences. And our teams hold us together. Kobe was some of the glue that holds LA together.”
When @IceCube was told Kobe died, he was so sure it couldn't be true, he texted...Kobe. He of course never got an answer. Really powerful stuff on what Kobe meant to LA: "this city has a lot of fault lines, not only in the ground but with the people...Kobe brought us together." pic.twitter.com/TdNilrMtV5— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) January 28, 2020
Monday, the basketball world held itself together as it absorbed the reality that Kobe Bryant was gone. There aren’t usually a lot of tears of sadness on sports television. Monday, tears were abundant, and it wouldn’t have seemed right without them.