Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty died at age 66 on Monday of cardiac arrest, as confirmed by his management just after midnight. But for several hours earlier on Monday, the rock star was dead to some members of the news media, even if he wasn’t in fact.
Though gravely ill and lingering near death, Petty was still clinging to life when CBS News incorrectly reported that he had died. The report — which the outlet blamed on unidentified sources in the Los Angeles Police Department — was later withdrawn and corrected.
But not before touching off a stampede of he’s-dead/no-he’s-not reporting by other news organizations. The result was a monumental mishmash of confusion, joining the long history of misreporting on the deaths of well-known people.
TMZ, the tabloid website with a history of being first on celebrity deaths, was the first outlet to report that Petty was in the hospital and soon updated its story to say: “TMZ reports that Petty had no brain activity when he got to the hospital and a decision was made to pull him from life support,” while never pronouncing that the “American Girl” singer had died.
Rolling Stone magazine reported around 4:15 p.m. EST that Petty had died and published a lengthy obituary of him. But the magazine upgraded Petty’s condition to “hospitalized” about an hour later without explaining what had happened to its earlier report. A note at the bottom of its story said, “This story is developing.”
Billboard, the music trade magazine, hedged a bit, citing a “report” in an otherwise matter-of-fact headline: “Tom Petty Dead at 66: Report.”
But Variety, the show business newspaper, went straight at it. “Tom Petty Dead at 66,” said its headline in late afternoon, without qualification. It later “updated” its story, saying that Petty was “reportedly clinging to life .”
USA Today issued a “breaking” email alert at 4:33 p.m. citing an unnamed report that said Petty was dead. But at 5:33 p.m. it issued a breaking-news alert to its earlier breaking-news alert reading: ‘Breaking: Rocker Tom Petty hospitalized; condition unclear; Initial reports that he died were retracted.” Its story, based on the second alert, seemed to split the difference, citing Petty’s “possible” death.
By about 6 p.m., the news consensus seemed to be that Petty was “fighting for his life,” as The Washington Post put it, but that he was still alive.
News organizations typically receive confirmation of a person’s death from a close family member or an official source, such as police, a coroner’s office or hospital personnel.
Petty was reportedly hospitalized Sunday night after being found unconscious at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was taken to UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center and placed on life support. But from there his condition, along with news reports, grew murky.
People magazine said thereafter “the decision was reportedly made to remove him from life support after it was found that he was lacking brain activity.” It didn’t say how it knew this, who said it or who made the alleged decision to remove life support.
The magazine’s late-afternoon story cited TMZ in reporting that Petty was “clinging to life.”
CBS cited the LAPD for its initial report. Shortly thereafter, the police department tweeted: “The LAPD has no information about the passing of singer Tom Petty. Initial information was inadvertantly [sic] provided to some media sources. However, the LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”