The world was shocked on Sunday by the news that former NBA star Kobe Bryant had died, with his daughter, in a helicopter crash. There was an immediate and collective public mourning–at the Grammy’s, on social media, on several billboards on my way to and from work. Shock and mourning, however, were followed all to predictably by countervailing outrages when a Washington Post reporter posted a link to a story (2006) about an old sexual assault allegation (2003). The information wasn’t new–the criminal charges were dropped, Kobe admitted some measure of fault (if not criminal liability) in what he considered mostly a misunderstanding about consent, and a civil settlement was reached. What was suspect was the timing of the reporter’s post, just hours after Kobe’s death. Mourners were outraged at the reporter, the Washington Post tried to assuage that anger by suspending the reporter, and then (of course) a new group was outraged on behalf of the reporter. It quickly ceased to be about Kobe.
The reporter was certainly within her rights (and her job description) to share factual information about a public figure in the aftermath of his death, even if she was shamelessly and needlessly trolling grief stricken mourners. When the Westboro Baptists did it, the rest of us hated it but dismissed it evil provocation for the sake of provocation. What this reporter has done is the same, or at least it should be except that she is hiding behind a more culturally acceptable form of self-righteousness than the Westboro Baptists had.
Her defense of her post was that “any public figure is worth remembering in their totality.” That’s pretty feeble, if for no other reason than that is not how memory works. Studies consistently show that memory is selective, incomplete, and inaccurate. We choose what to remember. This is not because our minds are broken or incapable of holding the fullness of facts; it’s because the narratives we construct through memory give our experiences meaning. Memory is not the process of recording information. Memory is the process of assigning significance.
In selecting what facts to retain and to foreground and by emplotting those facts into a comprehensible narrative, our memories serve to explain to us why past events matter. What’s more, the reporter knows all of this, at least unconsciously. What she is really saying is not that public figures should be remembered in their totality or else she would have linked to every story ever written about Kobe. She would be concerned with making sure we remember his fifth grade teacher’s name (which most of us don’t know) alongside his sports exploits (which most of us are at least aware of). She’s not.
She does what she does deliberately to remind us that this assault allegation is at least as important as his inspirational athleticism. She intends here to say something about Kobe–that no amount of basketball success should dilute sexual misconduct in any way . (And she’s right in this, as far as it goes.) But she is also saying something about herself, since disclosing how Kobe fits into the plot of her constructed universe gives the rest of us a clear picture of her (and her now defenders’) hierarchy of significance. The message is that any one transgression, provided it is the right kind of transgression, nullifies any amount of good. That’s an impossible standard for any of us to live up to–including that reporter–unless each of us gets to decide for ourselves what kinds of sins are forgivable and what kinds aren’t.
For those who are genuinely mourning Kobe at this moment, allegations of assault do not erase who he was. Whether it was as a father, a husband, or an inspirational public figure, Kobe’s meaning exceeds any individual wrong. And that’s alright. I assume that his children and his wife, in particular, haven’t forgotten about the allegations in 2003, but neither is this the necessary or appropriate time to call them to mind. When I die, my loved ones will not forget every shortcoming of mine, but I also hope they don’t feel the need to list them in my eulogy. I assume the Washington Post reporter would hope the same for herself.
In the end, the Washington Post probably shouldn’t have “cancelled” the reporter in response to public outrage, but I’m much more concerned about the opposite reaction that would lionize her as a hero of the free press. He goal was never anything but to antagonize a grieving public into remembering Kobe her way, prioritizing her structures of signification. She’s a First Amendment warrior the way the Westboro Baptists were–reminding us that the First Amendment’s limits include space for distasteful individuals. Try to ignore them and move on.