This distinction applies, I think, to a controversy at my journalistic home, The Post. It began with the extremely newsworthy death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash that also killed Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, and seven other people. Two of them were teammates on Gianna Bryant’s squad of middle school basketball stars. Those girls also had parents dead in the wreckage on a rugged California hillside.
Such layers of sorrow saturated that story. On the largest scale, the crash brought home that most unwelcome and unbearable fact of life: that it ends for absolutely every one of us — at a time of its own choosing, not ours. No armor of wealth or fitness or fame is proof against fate. Pianos are dropping from the sky all around us, and one may be headed our way.
On a more particular scale, there was the celebrity athlete, the demigod whose astonishing feats were summoned to be savored once more — only now with the pall of loss as a scrim. Of all competitors, a basketball player’s gifts may be the most widely accessible, because almost everyone has tried running and jumping, and most of us have bounced a ball or launched one at a target. If you’ve done any of those things, you can appreciate the fantastic extremes of Bryant’s achievements and savor the quintessence of human potential that he represented in his realm. It was profoundly sad to turn the last page of that marvelous book.
And then at the immediate, personal level — the most painful because it is the least abstract — were those vital, promising children, busy growing into themselves and their futures. Gone. And then the waves of grief that their deaths, their parents’ deaths, the pilot’s death, sent rolling over the suddenly sickened lives of their survivors. Heartbreaking.
I’ve never met my Post colleague Felicia Sonmez, but I’ve read enough of her work to know that she’s crackerjack. After the crash, she swung a 20-pound sledgehammer at the Bryant story, tweeting a link to a detailed report of the highly credible rape accusation lodged against the hard-court hero in 2003. When I say “highly credible,” I mean that Bryant himself admitted that he engaged in rough sex with his accuser, choked her so violently that she had bruises on her jawline and left her with multiple lacerations. In a statement, he acknowledged that he could understand why she thought he had raped her — even though the encounter seemed consensual to him.
The Twitter response to this truth-telling, so soon after the deaths, was predictably as disgusting as you would expect from the social media dystopia. What sparked controversy was the reaction of Sonmez’s senior editors. Like most media organizations, The Post walks a precarious path between loving and loathing Twitter. On one hand, the platform is an efficient means to promote good work. On the other hand, it’s the digital equivalent of an overflowing septic tank. In this case, the attempt to highlight an important fact in a major story landed the paper smack dab in the sewage. Sonmez was suspended with pay — a decision widely denounced inside the newsroom and beyond. (The Post later reinstated Sonmez on Tuesday.)
Given the raw and tangled emotions laid bare by that wreckage on the hillside, a scalpel might seem to be the right tool for examining and exploring the story. Indeed, most of the immediate news accounts and obituaries and appreciations of Bryant’s life attempted to carve just a little space, deep into the articles, almost in passing, for a mention of the rape allegation. An attentive reader could almost sense the anguish of the journalists, working with one eye on the truth and the other eye on the grieving.
Sonmez kept both eyes on the truth — or more precisely, on one particular truth, namely that somewhere a woman was experiencing this outpouring of adulation for a man who choked and lacerated her during an encounter that she called a rape, and which he acknowledged was very much like one. And that this woman, and others like her, victimized by other accomplished, admired, even celebrated men, should not be resected from the stories of those men’s lives.
Sometimes, the hammer of truth will break hearts and smash propriety. That makes it an imperfect tool. Still, it’s the best one we have.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.