Two prominent female journalists were pummeled on social media, one was even suspended from her job. Both received death threats for having the audacity to mention a well-established rape charge against the late Kobe Bryant.
Just consider the irony of that for a moment. You thought we were in the #MeToo generation and that we had moved beyond the previously allowed, or rationalized, shaming of women who raised their voices against sexual assault or harassment of women.
Well, not so fast. The rules are clearly scrambled when the alleged abuser is a world-famous man whose death moved some of his fans to express their grief as anger, threats or condemnation of women who raised inconvenient truths about the NBA legend.
Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post, a tremendous reporter who has said she was the victim of sexual misconduct, found herself in the crosshairs of Bryant avengers after tweeting a story documenting Bryant’s past sexual transgressions on Jan. 26, the day he and eight others, including his daughter, died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.
People vented their outrage at Sonmez on Twitter. She tried to respond: “To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story — which was written 3+ years ago, and not by me.”
Sadly, she was placed on administrative leave by her employers even though it doesn’t appear that she violated the social media guidelines of her publication by tweeting a story about Bryant. The justification of some of Bryant’s avengers is that it was too soon. People were still processing Bryant’s death.
People I am “friends” with on Facebook, including members of the media, criticized Sonmez for being insensitive. In this case, what we used to call “the truth” is insensitive.
OK, so then there is obviously some unwritten rule relating to a cooling off period, a fortnight of mourning maybe, before journalists are allowed to, you know, be journalists without fearing a penalty of death.
Well, apparently that unwritten moment of mourning has not elapsed. Because Gayle King, the well known CBS host, was also subjected to death threats for asking about Bryant’s rape allegations on TV. In an interview with former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, she asked: “It’s been said that his legacy is complicated because of a sexual assault charge which was dismissed in 2003, 2004. Is it complicated for you, as a woman, as a WNBA player?”
A simple question. A torrent of response, including condemnation from Snoop Dogg, with an Instagram post saying “Why are you all attacking us? We’re your people.”
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It got so bad, and so many people were threatening to kill King, that her famous friend Oprah Winfrey felt the need to speak up for her. Well, I am not in the same league as Oprah, but as a journalist I feel the need to write this: Neither Sonmez nor King did anything wrong.
Journalists are supposed to ask tough questions. In writing about, tweeting about or asking about famous people who have died, their jobs are to convey the whole story to readers and viewers.
I did it the day that Bryant died. I mentioned it because it was my job to cover the death of a famous person and to provide my readers with the whole story so that they could process it.
Bryant was credibly accused of rape in 2003. As the Daily Beast wrote, “It is impossible to read through the legal documents and not come away repulsed.”
Bryant even admitted afterward in a statement that while he viewed his sexual encounter with a 19-year-old woman as consensual, the woman did not. Here is part of what he said: “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
When a woman does not give consent, and sex happens anyway, what do they call that? In Bryant’s case, his accuser backtracked after her reputation was smeared in the ensuing publicity surrounding the case.
Does the fact that two female journalists have been smeared for raising this undeniable past make you feel uncomfortable? It makes me feel uncomfortable for several reasons. I feel terribly for Sonmez and King. They didn’t do anything wrong and, if you think they did, then you understand hero worship more than you understand the role of a free press.
I, too, felt the tragic loss Bryant, his daughter and others traveling with them. But what happened in Bryant’s past actually happened. His rape case shouldn’t define him, but it should be part of his story. And we’re supposed to tell the full stories of famous people when they die.
Telling the full story is not insulting or disrespectful. It’s honest.
In totalitarian countries, journalists can die for telling uncomfortable truths. The ability to tell such truths is what sets our country apart.
Or at least it did before too many people weaponized their hero worship and aimed at two women who raised awareness for one tarnished part of a legacy and were threatened for doing so. We should be aware of that, too.
Marcos Breton is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.