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Media coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death was a chaotic mess, but there were moments of grace

Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 in California. Eight other people, including his daughter Gianna, were also killed. (Video: The Washington Post)

If the media world were ruled by thoughtfulness, rigor and ethics, TMZ wouldn’t have broken the news about Sunday’s helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others before all the families were notified.

The president of the United States would not have tweeted out inaccurate information about the number of people killed.

The BBC would not have shown a video clip of another Los Angeles Lakers superstar, LeBron James, instead of Bryant, and an ABC News reporter surely would not have said on air that all four of Bryant’s daughters were believed to be among the crash victims.

Twitter’s trending section would not have illustrated the Bryant news with a photo of the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.

But what rules the media world in 2020 is the drive to be first, at any cost, and the rush to get something — anything, it sometimes seems — on an outlet’s site.

In any major breaking news event, whether a hurricane or school shooting, you can assume that some of the early coverage will be wrong. The Kobe Bryant story was an especially bad example of that truism. 

News consumers of all stripes have learned to approach the first reports with a certain amount of skepticism. They’ve learned that the hard way, after seeing alleged gunmen falsely identified, victim counts inflated, and much more.

I was in a movie theater when TMZ broke the news. When I came out and looked at my phone, it was blowing up with all sorts of rumors and false information about the superstar and his family.

Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. The 13-year-old shared her father's love of basketball. (Video: The Washington Post)

I appreciated the Los Angeles Times’s early, measured approach to this hometown tragedy. A tweet 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.”

Soon after, the Times took the extremely unusual step of removing its paywall for Bryant coverage — something I’ve seen in cases of a natural disaster, mass shooting or an election night, but never for the death of an individual.

A few minutes later, a friend and I were sitting at a bar at Essex Market on New York City’s Lower East Side, and no one was talking about anything else. The bartender was wiping away tears and barely functioning.

A 29-year-old woman sitting next to me looked up from her phone: “I don’t know — is TMZ dependable?” She looked stunned: The celebrity-oriented site — often the first to report high-profile deaths, famously including Michael Jackson’s in 2009 — at that moment was reporting that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter was among the victims.

At that, the sick feeling worsened. TMZ isn’t admirable, but it’s usually right. Or (in a regrettable category that might be called “not good enough”), it’s usually mostly right. And in this case, the grim development was reported correctly.

The public criticism of TMZ by a Los Angeles law enforcement official for breaking the news before family members could be notified was appropriate, but you can be sure it will make no difference for next time. It’s what they do.

Then there was the question of how — while extolling Bryant’s stellar career on the court (or “the field,” as Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg bizarrely said, twice, during a Fox News town hall) — to deal with a credible rape accusation lodged against him in 2003. (The criminal charges eventually were dropped, the case settled out of court, and Bryant apologized to the 19-year-old hotel employee but claimed he believed he was having consensual sex.)

Should it be ignored, as many fans would have preferred? Or clearly acknowledged? Was this “not the right moment”? Or was it the only moment there is — when a superstar’s career and life were being assessed?

Charles Pierce, writing on, and Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News got the balance right, I thought — and quickly.

Pierce, in an elegant obituary, evoked the poet Jim Carroll, who wrote that, in basketball, “you can correct your mistakes immediately and beautifully, and in midair.”

After giving full credit to the wonders of Bryant’s talent and his contributions to the sport — and beyond — Pierce wrote that the rape allegation should not be brushed aside, because “it is 2020 now, and Jeffrey Epstein is dead and Harvey Weinstein is in a New York courtroom, and erasing a victim is no longer a viable moral and ethical strategy.”

He concluded: “Kobe Bryant died on Sunday with one of the young women in his life, and how you will come to measure his life has to be judged by how deeply you believe that he corrected his grievous fault through the life he lived afterwards, and how deeply you believe that he corrected that fault, immediately and beautifully, and in midair.”

It was heartening to see some moments of grace in a media picture mostly characterized by the drive to be first at all costs, by sloppy and damaging mistakes, and by failures of judgment. A nation of fans deserved better, even if, based on plenty of past experience, they had no reason to expect it.

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The death of Kobe Bryant

Here’s what you need to catch up on what happened in Calabasas, California.

Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26. The NBA legend and sports icon was 41 years old.

Nine people, including Bryant, were killed in the crash. Gianna Bryant, the former player’s 13-year-old daughter, was among the dead.

Memorial service: Los Angeles honored Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the victims of the crash with a memorial at Staples Center. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, spoke at the memorial, as did NBA legend Michael Jordan, among others.

Obituary: Bryant was an individual whose tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition.

Photos: Bryant’s milestones | Kobe through the years | The scene as people mourn in L.A.

Commentary: Bryant accomplished so much, sports columnist Jerry Brewer writes. “Yet his story still feels disturbingly incomplete, and that’s why so many are taking his death so hard.” Barry Svrluga writes: “Lives are not clean. Legacies are messy. Memories are personal. It’s worth talking through.”

Read deeper:

Kobe Bryant’s beautiful game was built on grace, intensity and confidence

• For LeBron James, Bryant’s death provided a powerful reminder of life’s priorities

• Bryant was a storyteller in search of perfection. The most vexing tale was his own.

Media coverage of Bryant’s death was a chaotic mess, but there were moments of grace