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Gayle King should be held accountable and not threatened

by: Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego

· Lateral Theory

For the past few days, I have been watching the twitter-verse, and public backlash towards Gayle King escalate from constructive commentary to death threats. The vitriol, anger and frustrations occurred because of an interview King conducted with WNBA basketball superstar Lisa Leslie. The conversation was meant to honour the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant who died tragically on 26 January 2020 with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant along with 7 other people. I want to pause to honour the memories of everyone lost in that tragedy and send prayers to all the families grieving their lost ones at this time.

King's interview meant to capture the perspective of a close friend who knew Bryant well and could speak to the character of the man he was. In the intimacy of Lisa Leslie’s home, under the gaze of soft lighting, with Leslie looking radiant in her pink dress, Leslie reflected on her friend. She spoke about him with the grace and conflicted emotion of a person who was grieving someone gone too soon. Leslie smiled and endearingly laughed as she remembered her friend. One of the most poignant things Leslie said about Bryant’s impact to Women’s basketball was “ he was changing the mindset of men, and he was validating us". King created an environment of comfort and trust, probing and clarifying comments so we could understand who Kobe Bryant was through Leslie’s gaze.

King shifted the interview to what she framed as a question about Bryant’s “complicated legacy” due to his sexual assault charge that was dismissed in 2003. She asked Leslie to comment as a “woman” and a ‘WNBA player”. Leslie answers, “its not complicated for me at all” and continues to explain what she observed as his friend. King then pushes back, stating as Bryant's friend Leslie would not see it (predatory behaviour). Leslie responds categorically, saying she does not believe that “things happened with force”. King then continues the same questioning and broadens the discussion to whether or not it is fair to ask the question or if it is part of Bryant’s history. Leslie tactfully responds "it is important to be respectful at this time" and emphasises the case was dismissed, and the media had opportunities to ask these questions when Bryant was alive.

King still presses the issue and underpins the case being dismissed because the victim refused to testify. In that moment Leslie eloquently and astutely states” that is where we should leave it”. King then pivots back to why Bryant has impacted so many people. Leslie's closing comments were that "joy and sorrow are inseparable" and how sorrow was awakened in her and the lives of people around this loss. It is essential to note the exchange about the sexual assault case is 1 minute and 44 seconds out of an interview that lasts 5 minutes and 33 seconds.

There are several problematic issues with the exchange between Gayle King and Lisa Leslie. My theory is the backlash and vitriol King is experiencing isn't exclusively as a result of what some perceive to be disrespectful to the Bryant family and character assassination of a man not even two weeks into the ground. The interview was a tipping point for the underlying issues some members of the black community have with Gayle King, which are these. First, King has consistently demonstrated a lack of journalistic integrity on high-profile sexual assault cases by only focussing on black men. Second, in the interview with Leslie, King is not on code for the black community.

In the world of social media, Instagram influencers, bloggers and thought leaders, it is easy to confuse people with expert opinions and journalists. Gayle King by profession, is a journalist. King has been in the industry for over 25 years and anchored her news show for 18 years. King has won several awards for journalism and was notably inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of fame in 2018. King’s credentials are fundamental to this issue because journalistic integrity concerning Gayle King has a very different meaning. Journalists operate by a code of ethics, a creed derived from Walter William, Founder of Missouri School of journalism in 1908, that among many statements says “clear thinking, clear statements, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism”. King has not been fair to the black community with the coverage she has done with high-profile sex cases because she is not consistent.

King notably interviewed R Kelly about his alleged sexual assault cases following the Lifetime documentary, “Surviving R Kelly”. King and her panel on CBS morning reported on Leaving Neverland, the controversial documentary that documents the victims’ accounts of the sexual molestation cases surrounding Michael Jackson. In the coverage of Leaving Netherland, King and the panel interviewed the alleged victims, the director Dan Reed and members of the Jackson family. King has interviewed Oprah Winfrey to discuss Winfrey’s recent controversy around first being part of the producing team for Russell Simmons documentary about his sexual assault allegations and subsequently exiting the project. The pattern is consistent with sexual-assault cases with high-profile black men. Some members of the black community are angry and asking where is the same energy when it comes to high-profile white men also accused?

King has a complicated history with high-profile white men accused of sexual misconduct or assault. Charlie Rose, the former TV-anchor at CBS morning and King’s colleague, had 35 individual women accuse him of several sexual misconduct allegations during his tenure which ultimately led to his dismissal. King is on record stating she applauds the women for speaking up and reported on Rose’s firing immediately after his termination in 2017. However, in October 2018, King was interviewed by Vanity Fair, where she is on record discussing how she and Rose are still friends and how there are two sides to every story.

King also had links with Harvey Weinstein, who is currently on trial for raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 but has had several high-profile women come forward about their alleged sexual misconduct issues with the Producer. Weinstein has arguably become synonymous with the #metoo era. So it stands to objective reasoning why there wouldn’t be dedicated coverage at CBS Morning by King and the panel especially since the case is ongoing and Weinstein is an alleged serial sexual predator. Instead, the strategy the team have taken is to report on Jodi Kantor’s book that chronicles and breaks down the Weinstein story and then uses Kantor as a contributor periodically.

In one of CBS Morning’s reporting on the Weinstein trial, King and the panel shift the discussion to its symbolism, the CBS Poll on the Times Up and Me Too movements and how the case is more significant then Weinstein. It is interesting how the discussion is elevated and existential when high-profile white men are involved. Still, when the subjects are black men, the reporting is deliberate, specific and consistent.

In the black community, there is a code that we all know inherently exists in western Anglo-Saxon environments, especially when dealing with majority power structures. The code is across the diaspora and can be nuanced in its interpretation, and this sometimes causes conflicts. For example, when Africans immigrate to the UK or Us and in some cases black Americans make comments like “I don’t see colour” to predominantly white audiences, that is not on code. This statement may be right for their experience because they are coming from majority-black nations, or a different socio-economic status and upbringing. But in the environment they currently reside it invalidates the experience of the black community at large who deal with systematic racism and bias.

Another example, is when Terry Crews was recently asked about Gabrielle Union’s firing at America’s Got Talent (AGT) due to Union’s accusations of a toxic atmosphere around sexism and racism at the show. Crews goes on to discuss how he can't speak to sexism, but he could talk to how racism had never been his experience, and it's the most diverse show he had participated. What Crews doesn't do in that interview is acknowledge while accusations were not his experience; it does not negate the experiences of Union and others. Crews was not on code and faced subsequent backlash for which he apologised to Union.

So what does all of this have to do with Gayle King? It is a well-established fact that black people especially black men are negatively portrayed in the media. Therefore the expectation from the black community is that black journalists should not continue the bias. In King's situation, it was appropriate to ask the question about the case and Bryant’s legacy. It would be journalistically dishonest not to. However, one of the critical issues is that she pressed on the topic four times after Leslie answered her directly the first time. King was not on code because it came across as though there was an agenda or a narrative, whether intentional or not.

Another issue with the interview is the context for which Leslie was speaking was as a friend to Kobe Bryant. However, when the conversation shifts to sexual assault, King specifically asks Leslie to talk as a Woman and a WNBA player. King asked another black woman to speak outside the totality of her identity to answer a question. That topic alone is frankly another blog post but to put Leslie in that position is not on code. King graduated with a psychology degree, so that shift came across as deliberate.

Finally, when King comments that Leslie wouldn’t be able to see certain behaviours because Bryant was a friend, it is hypocritical. The hypocrisy is two-fold. First, I have discussed the links that King has with Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein. King may not have seen their behaviours and can speak from experience, but the presumption assumes that Bryant was guilty and Leslie wouldn't see anything. Secondly, the purpose of the interview in the first place was because Leslie was giving insights as his friend. So why was it acceptable to believe Leslie when she spoke about his character on everything else except this topic. A black woman pressing another black woman on what she believes to be true about her friend in the context of an untimely death was not on code. Some members of the black community expect to see that behaviour from everyone else but not a black journalist.

Following the viral coverage of the interview clip with Leslie, King issued an apology explaining her perspective. The apology has further escalated the situation because there is no acknowledgement or accountability for the role she played in this situation. Essentially, the network is the culprit. Interestingly, King states she did not know the network was publishing that specific clip. If this is true, King is indirectly saying two things 1) she does not have creative control of a show she anchors 2) the network not only threw her under a bus but reminded her of her ‘place’. Additionally, in her statement, there was no direct apology to Vanessa Bryant and the Bryant family who are still grieving the loss of Kobe. The apology wouldn’t be about the questions if she felt they were valid but for the controversy caused during their time of mourning.

King continues to have an onslaught of comments and backlash as a result of the exchange with Leslie. To the point where its escalated to death threats. I am an advocate of constructive criticism and mature disagreements. It is my intention in this account of the situation to constructively criticise King for what I believe to be an error in judgement. I do not condone the disrespectful misogynoir that has occurred nor the death threats she is experiencing as a result of her decision. King can be held accountable for her actions without being denigrated. Additionally, the black community needs to come to terms with how sexual assault and predatory behaviour is addressed, discussed, and why predators are protected. From my perspective, 2 weeks after Kobe Bryant's untimely demise wasn't the time, the place nor his case the example.

If this entire situation is really about preserving Kobe Bryant’s legacy, then lets remember his words “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise”. Let’s keep each other accountable and rise.

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