When Snoop Dogg and the trolls came for Gayle King, most of us said nothing. That's a problem

"CBS This Morning" anchor received death threats instigated in part by social media insults hurled by Snoop Dogg

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 15, 2020 3:30PM (EST)

Gayle King speaks at the 62nd Grammy Awards Nominations at CBS Broadcast Center on November 20, 2019 in New York City.  (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Gayle King speaks at the 62nd Grammy Awards Nominations at CBS Broadcast Center on November 20, 2019 in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

As we launch into this discussion of one of the most aggravating media stories in recent memory, I think it's important to present a couple of important statements, leaving no questions about context.

Part of this first one may be familiar to you.

 First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure.

. . . I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. 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.

I issue this statement today fully aware that while one part of this case ends today, another remains. I understand that the civil case against me will go forward. That part of this case will be decided by and between the parties directly involved in the incident and will no longer be a financial or emotional drain on the citizens of the state of Colorado.

This was the official statement issued by Kobe Bryant on September 1, 2004 through his attorney after a judge dismissed charges of sexual assault brought against him by a woman who was 19 years old at the time, and who refused to testify. The woman filed a civil lawsuit in August which was settled out of court on March 2, 2005.

If you're savvy as to the way the world works, you're right to question the true motivations behind releasing this statement. At the time Bryant had much to lose, and had indeed lost a few endorsement deals. He would go on from this incident to pick up others, and to become one of the most valuable players in the history of the NBA and the Los Angeles Lakers.

But the fact that it was made public is in itself extraordinary. Bryant could have said nothing at all. Instead he issued an actual apology. Not, "I'm sorry if" or "I am sorry that you feel that way." He says: "I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year."

Since Bryant's untimely death in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna on Jan. 26, there have been a number of questions about whether the 2003 sexual assault allegation against him is fair to bring up as his fans remember him.

Pieces are still being written about the journalist's duty to reckon with public figures in full, but what I've noticed is the tendency to boil this full statement down to this sentence: "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," perhaps throwing in the sentence that follows for additional context.

Left aside is the statement's acknowledgement of his accuser's pain.  Bryant does not admit guilt, but that doesn't make him innocent of wrongdoing. Nor does a dismissal of the case because the accuser wouldn't testify mean that this part of his history is completely laid to rest; Bryant's defense team shredded this woman's reputation for months before she ultimately refused to testify. That information also is part of the public domain.

Here's more context, in the form of transcript segments of Gayle King's recent conversation with Lisa Leslie that aired Tuesday, Feb. 4 on "CBS This Morning."

King interviewed the former WNBA player about a range of topics, but specifically asked about Leslie's close relationship with Bryant. "What does Kobe's death, what does his loss mean to women's basketball?" King asks.
Leslie answers, "You know, he was really making change."

"How so?" inquires King, which gets a thoughtful reply from Leslie. "The mindsets of other men more than anybody else. He's giving us – he's validating us, if you will. These young ladies who are out there playing. The fact that he's enjoying and being entertained by great basketball. It made other men feel, I'm hoping, like, 'What is this about?' Like this is – it's good."

It's important to read that exchange to understand why King eventually asks the tough questions about Bryant's legacy.  Here's that portion, in full:

King: 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?

Leslie: It's not complicated for me at all. Even if there's a few times that we've been at a club at the same time, Kobe's not the kind of guy – never been, like, you know, 'Lis, go get that girl, or tell her or send her this.' I have other NBA friends that are like that. Kobe was never like that. I just never, have ever seen him being the kind of person that would do something to violate a woman or be aggressive in that way. That's just not the person that I know.
King: But Lisa, you wouldn't see it, though. As his friend, you wouldn't see it.
Leslie: And that's possible. I just don't believe that. And I'm not saying things didn't happen. I just don't believe that things didn't happen with force.

King: Is it even a fair question to talk about it considering he's no longer with us and that it was resolved? Or is it really part of his history?

Leslie: I think that the media should be more respectful at this time. It's like if you had questions about it, you had many years to ask him that. I don't think it's something that we should keep hanging over his legacy. I mean, it went to trial.

King: Yeah, well, the case was dismissed because the victim in the case refused to testify. So, it was dismissed.

Leslie: And I think that that's how we should leave it.

Seen in its fullness King was doing her job as a journalist – she asked Leslie, a role model for women in sports, about her friendship with a beloved sports figure whose legacy includes a rape allegation. She points out that Leslie's views of Bryant and the incident may be influenced by her close friendship with him and the reason that the case was dismissed. Context is important.

But so is acknowledging wrongdoing, which is where the larger mediasphere failed Gayle King.

You see, most people probably didn't watch the full interview between King and Leslie, which lasted around five and a half minutes. What they probably saw was the 94-second teaser clip CBS circulated after its airing that included only the portion of the interview in which King asked Leslie about whether Bryant's legacy was complicated, ending the clip at the part where King says, "But Lisa, you wouldn't see it, though. As his friend, you wouldn't see it."

More likely, they saw Snoop Dogg's reaction posted on Instagram, in which he calls Bryant a "funky dog-head b***h." "How dare you try to tarnish my mother***king homeboy's reputation. Punk mother***ker" before saying " Respect the family and back off b***h before we come and get you."

Or they saw Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's Instagram take, in which he also calls King a b***h and goes on to post insulting memes.

In King's defense, Ta-Nehesi Coates issued his own thoughtful assessment about the two celebrities' vitriol via his own Instagram post. "It is perhaps naive to expect black men to be better — oppression is always demeaning and rarely ennobling," Coates writes.  "But black men, perhaps more than other men, have some inkling of what it's like to have a body that can be taken for someone else's pleasure. Indeed, we know more than we want to say, because if we ever said it all we might never stop crying. Maybe that really is the root of this."

He goes on to summarize the fury thusly: "Gayle King dared speak of a man as though he were one, and a lot of us f***ing lost it. We did not calmly express our dislike of the question. We were too weak for that. We threatened. We dragged. And we attacked. A friend, watching all this said, 'Damn, Gayle has a son.' To which I could only respond, 'These dudes have sons too.' And this is what we're teaching them."

Networks are in the habit of promoting interviews in the way described above, by teasing excerpts most likely to produce curiosity or outrage or viral pickup. But it's baffling to think why anyone at a major network's newsroom would believe circulating that out-of-context segment would be a good idea days before Bryant's funeral. Not only that, but to do so a few days after witnessing the fallout faced by Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez is absolute lunacy.

Sonmez was inundated with threats on social media, doxed and forced to move into a hotel room out of fear for her safety. The Post suspended her, reinstating her after the outcry within the industry became too loud to ignore. And all she did was post a link to The Daily Beast's 2016 article about the rape case in her feed.

There was more conversation about the Post's mishandling of Sonmez's situation than there was about the fact that ViacomCBS has remained silent during the time that one of its employees threatened another before his 39.1 million followers on Instagram. (Remember, Snoop co-stars with Martha Stewart on the popular VH1 series "Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party" – and VH1 is owned by ViacomCBS.)

King has since had to obtain a security detail for her and her family's protection.

CBS News President Susan Zirinsky immediately came out in support of King via a statement to the Associated Press last week, adding "We find the threats against her or any journalist doing their job reprehensible."

But otherwise, in major outlets the incident has been covered like a hip-hop beef, with reporters noting when Snoop appeared to walk back his comments before finally apologizing to King on Instagram on Wednesday.

"I publicly tore you down by coming at you in a derogatory manner based off of emotions of me being angry at a question you asked. Overreacted," he said. "I should have handled it way different than that, I was raised way better than that, so I would like to apologize publicly for the language that I used and calling you out . . .  and just being disrespectful."

The original offending post has since been removed from Snoop's Instagram. However, you can still find portions of it elsewhere, including on 50 Cent's feed. By the way, the executive producer of ABC's "For Life" and Starz's "Power" franchise – which was created by another black woman, we should mention – has not yet apologized to King. I won't be holding my breath for that to happen.

This entire incident causes all sorts of synaptic misfires in a person's brain for a lot of reasons, especially if said person is also a black woman. Because what this entire incident tells us about how much hasn't changed is chilling.

There is no more public evidence of how vulnerable targets black women in the public eye happen to be than what has happened to King. Sadly this isn't news. Black women who are public figures are favorite targets in this day and age.

Just ask journalists Jemele Hill, April Ryan, Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Ayanna Pressley, and really, any black journalist who has dared to raise a controversial or unpopular truth. Especially, by the way, if that point calls negative attention to a famous and powerful black man.

Maybe the fact that so many people have come to expect this is why so few media analysts really examined these dynamics currently playing out before our eyes.

If Snoop had said the same thing about a white female news anchor all kinds of media analysts would be coming for him.

But he never would do that, if only because . . . what would Martha say? After all, Snoop respects Martha.

Demeaning a black woman journalist at a major network with derogatory language, though, is perfectly fine. So fine, in fact, that while she's living in fear, one of the men who verbally attacked her can continue to promote his new network series without eliciting much of a peep. I suppose this is normal.

King took up her defenses with her own social media video post after the teaser circulated: "For the network to take the most salacious part, taken out of context and put it up online for people who did not see the whole interview is something that's very upsetting to me," she says in her earliest reaction, "and that's something I'm going to have to deal with with them [CBS]. And we will – there will be a very intense discussion about that."

CBS News quickly responded to her statement by copping to having mishandled the promotion.

"Gayle conducted a thoughtful, wide-ranging interview with Lisa Leslie about the legacy of Kobe Bryant," a network spokeswoman stated. "An excerpt was posted that did not reflect the nature and tone of the full interview. We are addressing the internal process that led to this, and changes have already been made."

That wasn't enough to stop the threats against King's life.

It took a weekday rant from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough for most outlets to wake up to a fact that a prominent American journalist is dealing with death threats simply for asking a difficult but fair question.

 "To put it in the starkest terms, a black woman who is a journalist has her life threatened from a guy who has 39 million [social media followers]," Scarborough said then. "The post is still up. She faces threats and abuse, her children are now facing threats. Gayle King now has to have 24-hour security, and I will be damned, have I read the New York Times editorialize about it? No."

King remains one of the most respected journalists on network television. Not long ago, in fact, she won praise for her handling of an unhinged R. Kelly and is now the central anchor of CBS' recently revamped morning news program.

And even as she raised an uncomfortable question, she asked another to add some sense of balance to the conversation: "Is it even a fair question to talk about it considering he's no longer with us?" This is rhetorical, of course – yes, it's fair.

But it makes sense for her to ask that of Leslie since that is the conversation many in the media are having about Bryant at this very moment. And it specifically is fair because she is in conversation with a woman who is a friend of a man whose legacy is blemished by accusations of a violent crime against another woman. Other journalists have spoken to other such women without blowback. The difference is . . . well, you already know.

King sure does. For in response to Snoop's late apology, she publicly issued a statement accepting it . . . by way of her own apology for "questions I asked [that] added to that pain."

"As a journalist, it is sometimes challenging to balance doing my job with the emotions and feelings during difficult times," King adds. "I don't always get it perfect, but I'm constantly striving to do it with passion and integrity."  That much is as clear as the fact that she has nothing to apologize for.

And she wouldn't have had to . . . if she were Norah O'Donnell.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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