King’s comments were in response to an avalanche of criticism on social media that came her way after a clip of the journalist asking Leslie, a former WNBA player and friend of Bryant’s, about a 2003 rape allegation against the late NBA star.
The minute-and-a-half segment, which was clipped from a wide-ranging piece and shared by the network on social media, spurred a virulent reaction toward the co-host of “CBS This Morning.” That, and the scramble inside CBS to respond to the damage done to their popular morning show host, highlights King’s unique position at the crossroads of elite broadcast media and African American culture and the challenges that sometimes exist for those bridging the gap between them.
“Society is going to have a double critique of her because she speaks for the African American community and is also one of the highest-profile black women on television,” said Tamara Lee, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
Angry comments on Twitter and Instagram flooded social media in the dust-up over the short clip of the interview, conducted scarcely a week after Bryant died in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter. The segment — on the beloved basketball star that aired on the morning show Tuesday — focused solely on King’s questions about whether Bryant’s legacy was complicated by the rape allegation.
The rapper Snoop Dogg issued a crude, expletive-laden rant in a video on Instagram, calling the CBS anchor’s questions about Bryant’s legacy “way out of pocket.”
Bill Cosby — who was convicted of three counts of sexual assault in 2018, following years of allegations by dozens of accusers replied from his verified Twitter account: “@SnoopDogg. It’s so sad and disappointing that successful Black Women are being used to tarnish the image and legacy of successful Black Men even in death.”
Other African American men piled on:
Comedian Rickey Smiley, who hosts the nationally syndicated “Rickey Smiley Morning Show,” added: “All these years why didn’t you ask or interview Kobe when he was living!!”
Roland Martin, a prominent black journalist, said the backlash to the clip isn’t surprising.
“You always have this unease in the black community when it comes to this view of black men being taken down with rape accusations,” Martin said. But, he added, “Within the black community, we also have to deal with the reality and have serious discussions about sexual assault.”
For journalists covering Bryant’s legacy, Martin said, “it comes down to proportionality. Do you make that the emphasis . . . when it comes to his life and career. Is it a footnote? Is it something that you mention? Is it something that you ignore?”
While Snoop’s video response has been slammed by many as misogynistic, the rapper’s missive echoed criticism that has been leveled at black female journalists and advocates in the #MeToo era.
King, in particular, has been a part of the fraught discussion of sexual misconduct. She sat alongside fellow co-host Charlie Rose before he lost his job following sexual harassment allegations. She was widely praised for an interview last year with singer R. Kelly, who is facing multiple sex abuse charges. She also interviewed two women who allege Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax assaulted them, prompting Fairfax to file a lawsuit against CBS.
But Bryant’s recent death and his position as a beloved African American figure meant that her mention of his long-ago rape allegation nearly risked upending a huge swath of her support.
In her video response, King said she had conducted a wide-ranging interview with Leslie, and was “angry” about how it was edited.
“What the hell are you doing?” King said people asked her. “I had no idea what people were talking about.”
King, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in an email: “I really feel my post speaks for itself. I am now not trying to be ‘that guy’ seeking media attention. . . . It was important to me that people heard my side of the backstory from me . . . since most were reacting to a clip taken out of context . . . very regrettably released by CBS without my permission.”
By Wednesday evening, King was talking to top network executives, including CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, about what went wrong. King was upset in those conversations, according to two CBS insiders who were not authorized to speak publicly. A CBS executive said that the network has changed its protocols for approving and editing videos in the wake of the incident, though the network did not specify how those protocols had changed.
King has a reported $11 million contract and is one of the most recognizable African American women in media today. She is the linchpin of CBS’s morning lineup, which underwent a shake-up last year.
Within the industry she is seen as the most valuable member of CBS News’s lineup. “She has the ability to engage people,” Zirinsky said of her in an interview with The Washington Post last year. “People want to talk to Gayle,” Zirinsky added, crediting the “trust” that King has earned. “I don’t see anyone like her on television right now.”
But that trust took a beating in some quarters this week after the edited video about Bryant’s legacy made the rounds.
Oprah Winfrey, King’s longtime close friend and sometimes colleague, has faced similar challenges when covering allegations of sexual misconduct by prominent black men. Last year, after she hosted an hour-long special in which she interviewed the two men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as children in a widely viewed HBO documentary, she received strong rebukes from Jackson fans who felt it was wrong to air the allegations after the singer’s death.
Winfrey’s harshest critics have accused her of specifically targeting black men accused of sexual misconduct, often pointing to her past association with disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who is on trial for rape and sexual assault, and photos of the two palling around at industry events.
But Winfrey, who has spoken out about her own experience as a sexual assault survivor, faced heightened scrutiny from other survivors last month after she withdrew as executive producer from a documentary about women who have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct, including rape. Simmons, who has publicly denied the allegations, had urged Winfrey to abandon the project in an Instagram post that alluded to her influence in the black community.
The media mogul later explained her decision to step away from the documentary on “CBS This Morning” — opposite King and her co-hosts. Winfrey said that prior to Simmons’s public appeal, she felt there were “inconsistencies” in the documentary and told the filmmakers that she simply did not think it was ready to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The filmmakers disagreed, so she pulled out of the project. Despite her decision to step away, Winfrey said: “I stand in support of these women. I believe them.”
In an appearance on the “Today” show Friday morning, Winfrey said King still isn’t doing well in the wake of the recent controversy and hasn’t slept in two days. She “feels that she was put in a really terrible position because that interview had already ran . . . and it was only because somebody from the network put up that clip,” Winfrey said, her voice cracking at one point. “Obviously, all things pass, she will be okay.”
She added that “anybody can criticize anything,” but said “misogynistic vitriol” has made it dangerous. “It’s not just the people who are attacking you, it’s the other people who take that message and feel like that they can do whatever they want to because of it.”