Human Nature

Faith in the Appalachians: Baptist roots

Did you ever wonder how and why Baptists came to be the predominant religion in the Appalachians (in general) and the Cumberland Plateau (in particular)?

It’s a history that we (the Independent Herald) have been examining for our monthly religious focus series. In this part of the world, Baptist churches out-number all other denominations by overwhelming margins. In my home county on the northern Cumberland Plateau, for example, there is one Catholic congregation, one Presbyterian church, two Methodist churches, one Church of God, a couple of Churches of Christ — and nearly 200 Baptist churches.

As historian H. Clay Smith wrote in Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, the Baptist faith was carried to the Cumberlands by a minister named William Murphy, who preached at a newly-established Baptist church in what was then the town of Fincastle (just north of present-day LaFollette) in Campbell County. That was near the end of the 18th century. From there, Murphy’s teachings took root and off-shoots of the Fincastle Church included new Baptist churches on the western slopes of the Cumberland Mountains — in places like Sugar Grove, Buffalo and Jellico Creek. From there, Baptist churches began to spread throughout the area between the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork River, frontier territory that was just beginning to be settled. And this region has been predominantly Baptist ever since.

But to understand how William Murphy came to the Cumberlands in the first place, one must start at the beginning — and the beginning was the 17th century Puritan-Separist movement within the Church of England.

In those days, well after Columbus sailed the ocean blue but while the New World colonies were still controlled by the crown, most English people were Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church had flourished in England for hundreds of years.

But by the 16th century, many Christians in England were demanding reform from the church. Key voices in this push for reform were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564).

Beginnings of protestantism

It was in 1507, when Calvin was yet a kid, that the German monk Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of his Catholic Church, denouncing the church’s practice of pardoning sins and questioning papal authority. He was summarily excommunicated, and so began the start of the Protestant Revolution.

The cry of reformists was for the church to return to its roots, through simpler adherence to the teachings of the New Testament. This was summed up by Luther’s views on the doctrine of justification. Through his studies of the writings of the Apostle Paul and others, Luther became convinced that God declared a sinner righteous by faith alone through His grace.

Even as Luther was being excommunicated by the church, 12-year-old Calvin was employed by the bishop as a clerk in France. By 1530, Calvin had been converted and had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church — even though his first reform writing would not be published for another six years.

Calvin and Luther were similar in their approach to a Christ-centered theology that focused redemption on faith and grace alone rather than works, and thus became the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. Both men played similar roles in restoring the Gospel to the church, and Calvin was undeniably influenced by Luther. But they were also different, with Calvin’s theology focusing on the depravity of man as a stark contrast with the glory of God. And thus gave rise to the doctrines that would come to be known as Calvinism.

Puritans vs. Separatists

Slowly, Protestants began to divide themselves into two groups: Puritans and Separatists. Puritans believed in the purity of doctrine and its practice within the church. Though they admitted that reform was needed, Puritans believed the Church of England could be saved. Separatists had given up on reform and separated from the official church to form their own independent congregations.

By the 1620s, more than a half-century after the death of both Luther and Calvin, there were several protestant movements: the Quakers, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists were chief among them.

One of these independent protestant congregations adopted a practice of believer’s baptism. The idea was that only believers could be accepted into the church, and that they must be accepted through baptism. Their beliefs earned them the nickname “Baptists.” It was a derogatory reference made by their opponents, but it stuck.

General Baptists vs. Particular Baptists

From the beginning, there were two branches of Baptists: General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The General Baptists followed the teachings of Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who came after both Luther and Calvin. Arminius believed that Christ died for all, and that anyone who believed in Him would be saved. This was a forerunner to Arminianism.

The first General Baptist church was established in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608. It was led by John Smyth, and was made up of refugees who fled England to escape religious persecution after rebelling against the church.

Smyth himself was a minister of the Church of England, but he developed Puritan views and, after failing to bring reform to the church, formed his own Separatist congregation near London. When it became too dangerous for his group to meet in worship, they divided into two groups. One of those groups moved to Scrooby Manor, and became the group of pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Smyth led the other group, which migrated to Amsterdam to escape the wrath of King James I, who had pledged to punish anyone who refused to attend the Church of England.

In Amsterdam, Smyth’s group met a group of Dutch Mennonites who believed in the baptism of believers only. It was at this time that Smyth realized that since most of his group had been baptized as infants, they were not valid. The church, he decided, was based on a covenant and not an actual confession of faith. So he disbanded it, and founded a new church that followed believers’ baptism. Smyth baptized himself, then he baptized the others in the group. It wasn’t complete immersion; it was by sprinkling — a practice that would hardly be accepted by modern Baptists. But it was an act that was reserved for believers.

Eventually, Smith’s group returned to London and established the first Baptist church in England. By 1650, there were nearly four dozen Baptist churches in and around London.

The Particular Baptists came somewhat later. They were influenced heavily by the teachings of Calvin, and believed that Christ died for a particular, or predestined, group of people: the elect. Even though Baptists weren’t the only denomination to be influenced by Calvin’s teachings of limited atonement, the doctrine played heavily in the church.

By 1650, there were several Particular Baptist churches in and around London.

General Baptists were the Arminian arm of the Baptist faith; Particular Baptists were the Calvinist arm of the faith. But there were other differences as well. Perhaps chief among them: Particular Baptists believed that its preachers should be educated with formal theological training, and that they should deliver prepared sermons. General Baptists rejected the idea of formal training for its ministers, and preferred extemporaneous sermons, believing that prepared outlines would hinder the influence of the Holy Spirit. Their practice was justified by Luke 4:20, which recorded Jesus closing the sacred scroll before beginning to preach.

This is an important distinction because it begins to paint a picture of practices that survive even to this day in much of rural Appalachia. Many Baptist ministers in rural churches have held on to the approach of the early General Baptists that sermons should be delivered spontaneously instead of prepared. But the lines have also been blurred. More on that in a moment.

To America…

Baptists adopted one of the chief beliefs of the Mennonites, which was the idea that Christians were “a community of believers over who the king nor government held any power,” as John Sparks wrote in his book, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity.

This point of view didn’t go over well in England. Edward Wightman (1580-1612) was the last person to be burned at the stake after being condemned by King James I for heresy. He was a Baptist, or at least had Baptist leanings. As persecution increased in England, Baptists began seeking refuge in the American colonies.

Ironically, since America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, the new Baptist faith didn’t go over well in the New England colonies, either. While the first Baptist church had been established in Rhode Island by 1638, Baptists were considered a left-wing party of the Puritan movement. Their liberal faith was unpopular; Baptists and Quakers alike were viewed by Puritans in the colonies as heretical outcasts.

At the same time that the Baptist faith was being established in the new world, Particular Baptists were undergoing a great debate: Just how strongly should the doctrines of Calvinism be preached? Should ministers focus solely on foreordained election by grace? Or should they also incorporate man’s free will and accountability for his sins? It was a debate that would foreshadow the spreading of the Baptist faith into Appalachia by a minister named Shubal Stearns a century later.

A touch of Methodism

In 1705, Valentine Wightman — the great-grandson of the early Baptist martyr Edward Wightman, who was burned at the stake in England in 1612 — established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. His teachings would become prolific in the early 18th century, helping to grow the Baptist denomination in New England, even as the Puritans remain steadfastly opposed.

Reformation continued within the Church of England, meanwhile. The Methodist faith emerged as an evangelical minority party within the official church, right about the time of the Great Awakening.

One of the founders of Methodism, and of the evangelical movement as a whole, was Rev. George Whitefield, a British minister who worked closely with John Wesley.

Whitefield was a flamboyant and influential preacher who criss-crossed the Atlantic to spread the gospel in both Great Britain and the American colonies. Among the people Whitfield won over — though apparently never converted — was the American founding father Benjamin Franklin.

While Wesley, generally viewed as the father of Methodism, was strictly an Arminian, Whitefield tended towards the Calvinist doctrines. He became a key figure in the First Great Awakening, and his preaching helped to transform religion in the American colonies. From his influence came a feeling of separatism, and a rise of a new denomination: Separatist Congregationalists — a faith that gave rise to farmer-preachers with little formal training.

One of the people who sat under Whitefield’s sermons and was eventually converted was Shubal Stearns, a young minister who founded a Separatist church in Tolland, Connecticut.

Stearns was deeply influenced by Whitefield. In his book, Sparks described the dramatic flair with which Whitefield delivered his sermons as “a distinctive preaching cadence (with) emotive style and embellished in a singsong, almost hypnotic chant of ‘nasal quality.'”

Historian Robert Baylor Semple wrote of Whitefield’s style that those listening were often moved to “tears, trembling, screams and exclamations of grief and joy.”

Both the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of those listening who were said to have been moved by the Holy Spirit were relatively new phenomenons within the protestant movement.

The Methodism of George Whitefield was trending towards the Baptist teachings that his contemporaries would later promote, and the lines between General Baptists (preferring preachers with no formal training, but tending away from the teachings of Calvin) and Particular Baptists (preferring preachers with formal training, but embracing Calvinism) were becoming blurred. All of this, the blurring of theological lines and the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of his listeners, would heavily influence religion in the Appalachians. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

The reformation of Shubal Stearns

Shubal Stearns was heavily influenced by Whitefield and adopted his preaching style. Later, Stearns and his family were influenced by Wait Palmer, a disciple of Valentine Wightman, who had established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. Stearns traveled to hear Wightman preach and was converted, and he formed a Separate Baptist church in Tolland in 1751.

The evangelical churches that rose up from the Whitefield Revival that Stearns was a product of generally embraced only two “Gospel ordinances”: Baptism and communion. But Stearns and his congregation advocated for more: the laying of hands, foot-washing and anointing the sick with oil, to name but a few.

Later, Stearns would carry these practices to central Appalachia, and they remain traditional in many rural Baptist churches today. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Stearns was also an early father of fellowship within the church. He had his congregation begin a practice of embracing and shaking hands whenever they felt moved by the Holy Spirit. Today, fellowship handshakes are a staple of worship services in rural Appalachian Baptist churches.

Another tradition that took root among Stearns and his followers was closely-trimmed hair. The popular style of the mid 18th century was for shoulder-length hair, even among preachers. Stearns, though, kept his hair closely cropped.

Go (south)west, young man

In August 1754, Stearns, his family and many of his followers pulled up roots in Connecticut and began a migration southward. They believed that God had plans for them in the southwestern frontier. By this time, Stearns was a Whitefield-style evangelistic Calvinist who was also beginning to take on the more moderate beliefs of the General Baptists. Remember that debate among the Particular Baptists about just how strictly Calvinism should be preached? As Shubal Stearns prepared to spread the Baptist faith in Appalachia, he was blurring the lines between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Stearns and his convoy first settled in what is now West Virginia before traveling further south to central North Carolina. There, he teamed up with Herman Husbands, a Maryland Quaker who held large land holdings in the Sandy Creek area of upland North Carolina. Husbands envisioned a sort of backwoods New Jerusalem that would feature religious independence.

On November 22, 1755, Stearns founded the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church. And the settlers of the Carolina frontier, on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, took to his preaching like moths to a flame.

Sparks wrote that the settlers “heard Stearns’ loud, melodious preaching chant and the corresponding singing, laughing, shouting and weeping of his small flock, the sights and sounds held them spellbound, convincing them that through the New Birth in Christ they, too, could experience a happiness and a joy beyond anything their precarious frontier experience could fling at them.”

The success of Stearns’ ministry was almost unbelievable. Within months, he had baptized 900 people. Of those, 590 joined the Sandy Creek Church. Stearns helped organize other churches, too. It was not long before his ministry had spread throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as northward into Virginia.

Morgan Edwards, a Welsh minister who would become one of Stearns’ contemporaries, wrote in 1772 that Stearns’ voice was “musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner, as one while to make soft impressions on the heart, and fetch tears from the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon to shake the nerves, and to throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. All the Separate ministers copy him in tones of voice and actions body; and some few exceed him.”

Through the descriptions of Stearns’ style, which was adapted from Whitefield’s style, it’s easy to see that his influence still exists among many Baptist ministers in rural Appalachia today. The same sing-song preaching style — and the resulting emotional responses that it invokes among the congregation — can be found in rural Baptist churches even in the 21st century.

Eventually, Stearns had a large group of ministers under his wing, helping to spread his ministry — men like James Younger, Daniel Marshall, Philip Mulkey and John Newton (not the British minister who wrote “Amazing Grace”).

The Baptist teachings spread

If there was a single event that helped Stearns’ influence spread from the Carolinas and Virginia into other parts of Appalachia, it was the Regulators War in the late 1760s. A catalyst to the Revolutionary War, the Regulators War changed the Carolinas forever. One of the unofficial leaders of the Regulators was Herman Husbands — the founder of the Sandy Creek settlement where Stearns’ Baptist ministry was based.

By the time of the Regulators War, Stearns’ influence was beginning to fade. Scandal and controversy within the church had diminished his ministry, and he was advancing in age. But with the exodus from the Carolinas that followed the British government’s squelching of the Regulators rebellion, many of Stearns’ followers wound up deeper in Appalachia as the frontier was expanded.

The Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek area basically went two directions: north and south. Those who went north spread into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, while others entered the Clinch and Holston River valleys of southwest Virginia and eventually traveled through the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Many of the North Carolinians who moved to East Tennessee were the white settlers who were the first to set up homesteads on the Cumberland Plateau. And, with them, they brought the Baptist teachings, the preaching style and the religious traditions of Shubal Stearns.

Stearns died on November 20, 1771 — two days before the 16th anniversary of the constitution of the Sandy Creek Church. When he died, his once-powerful ministry had been greatly diminished. But his influence was well-established, and Shubal Stearns is a name that should be synonymous with the Christian faith in the central Appalachians. If not for Stearns, it is likely that Baptist churches wouldn’t be the predominant denomination in the Cumberlands and the Appalachians today. Further, Stearns’ theology was one that was later summed up well by Rev. John Leland, who wrote that the most successful and spiritual preaching was “the Sovereign Grace of God, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.”

If you go into many Baptist churches in rural Appalachia today, you’ll still find the blurred lines between Calvinism and Arminianism. You’ll still find the sing-song preaching cadence that Stearns adopted from Whitefield, the early Methodist minister who criss-crossed the Atlantic. You’ll still find fellowship handshakes that began with Stearns, as well as foot-washings and laying of hands and anointing with oil, although those practices are not universal in Baptist churches.

The Holston Association, Tennessee’s first association of Baptist churches, was directly born of the Sandy Creek Association that was founded by Stearns. Its first moderator was Tidence Lane, who succeeded Stearns as the pastor at Sandy Creek. William Murphy, the Baptist minister who would carry the denomination to the Cumberlands, played an early leadership role, as well.

The Holston conference nearly split over the question of Calvinism. In 1775, the question was formally posed: “Is salvation by Christ made possible for every individual of the human race?” Most of the association sided with the Arminian viewpoint. Murphy was one of those who stubbornly insisted that the answer was “no.” Later, his Calvinist leanings were carried to the Cumberlands when he became the first Baptist minister to preach here.

Ultimate influence

By the first decade of the 19th century, all of the Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the preachings at Sandy Creek had faded into various Baptist unions. Many of those unions, including the Holston, later became a part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But the influence of Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association remains undeniable. And from the former Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the teachings from Sandy Creek came several denominations that remain familiar today. Among them:

• The Separate Baptists in Christ, which began in Russell Springs, Ky., west of Somerset.

• Churches of Christ, a conservative and autonomous group of congregations that sprang up largely as a rebellion against the Calvinist teachings of the 17th century and 18th century Baptists.

• United Baptists, well over 100 of which remain throughout Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee and were born of the Campbell Reform in Kentucky.

• Primitive Baptists, the strictest adherents of the Calvinist doctrines, and still prominent in parts of the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas and other parts of the Deep South, as well as along the Atlantic Coast.

• Old Regular Baptists.

• Free Will Baptists, which can’t be traced to Stearns but became prolific in central Appalachia as former churches influenced by Stearns looked for reform.

• The Church of God, born of a United Missionary Baptist Church in Turtletown, Tenn. in the late 19th century.

Human Nature, Uncategorized

The power of testimony

This is powerful stuff. Jordan Jeffers is my son’s high school basketball coach and he has a pretty incredible story to tell. A star athlete who attended college on an athletic scholarship, he found himself addicted to drugs, kicked out of school, and trying to take his own life. This past year, he led the Highlanders’ basketball team to their best-ever start and a Top 5 state ranking.

His story inspired a song by award-winning contemporary Christian artist Matthew West, Hello My Name Is, which went to No. 1 on the U.S. Christian music charts.

Edit: The video won’t embed properly, so here’s a link to the video on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthewwest/videos/888610491664499/

Human Nature

Here’s why TMZ isn’t to blame for Kobe Bryant news

At 2:24 p.m. EST on Sunday, TMZ broke the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant was among those killed in a California helicopter crash. The news spread instantly, of course, as the world mourned the former Lakers star, who remained very active in the L.A. basketball community. Nearly everyone — from NBA teams that were playing Sunday afternoon to the President of the United States — paused to reflect on the life and legend of Bryant.

At a news conference later that day, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva took TMZ to task for breaking the news of Bryant’s death so quickly:

“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … perished and you learn about it from TMZ. That is just wholly inappropriate.”

Villaneuva’s comments were in response to a question from a reporter about why he refused to confirm the identities of the 9 people who were aboard the helicopter when it crashed.

I created a miniature firestorm on Twitter when I tweeted Monday afternoon that the LAC sheriff was wrong for blasting TMZ for the timing of its report. Some of those who were upset at what I tweeted thought I was disrespecting Bryant. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote earlier in the day on Monday, those criticizing people from being affected and saddened by Bryant’s death were in the wrong. For millions of Americans, particularly Generation X basketball fans, Bryant was very much a part of their lives for a lot of years. Bryant was a player I loved to hate when he was still active, because I was a Spurs fan and the Lakers were a major nemesis for the Spurs in the Shaq-Kobe years. But I respected him for his lethality, and especially for the way he stepped up to become a true role model for young athletes who looked up to him, especially after his retirement.

Many of those who responded were among those who’ve felt wronged by me for various reasons over the years — some over news stories our newspaper has covered, some because we stopped covering middle school championships, some because of an egregious error our paper made in reporting the death of a local prominent citizen last year, and some for different reasons entirely.

Someone said, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t make the tweet.” I happen to agree with that statement. I’m a big boy and I can stand on my own two feet. I don’t need some sort of public affirmation for my opinion. My closest friends love to call me a pot-stirrer and sometimes I admit that I do my fair share to earn that title. I knew when I posted that tweet that it would be an unpopular opinion — but at the same time, it’s hard to explain your opinion in 280 characters and I think some people probably misinterpreted what I meant. I’m okay with people disagreeing with me — even disagreeing harshly. I’m okay with people saying that’s the dumbest take they have read all day. But I won’t deny that some of the responses hurt — big time — because of what was said and where they were coming from: people I have respected, student-athletes past and present whose accomplishments and accolades I’ve worked to try to cover … responses that weren’t just disagreements but personal in nature. I’m a newspaper guy, and especially in a small town where everyone knows everybody, that creates a certain amount of disdain, because news stories have to be written about sensitive subjects without personal emotions attached. But that doesn’t mean that my skin is as thick as it probably should be, even after nearly 20 years in the industry.

I suppose the most telling part of the day was when my 13-year-old son posted a tweet last night that said: “People are TOXIC.” I suspected I knew what he was referring to, but I asked him about it. He said, “I just felt bad for you today. I read all of that stuff on Twitter and I couldn’t believe what some people were saying and I couldn’t believe who some of those people were who were saying it.” My son loved Kobe Bryant. He was hit hard by the news on Sunday. But, even at 13, he got it. You can disagree without devolving the debate into a sludge of nastiness … even in this era where we’re so quick to lash out at anyone whose opinion differs from our own.

Not everybody disagreed by making it personal, of course. One Scott High student asked, “as a journalist, a husband, and a father, how can you think this is okay?” That’s a perfectly legitimate and reasonable question. And lots of others disagreed similarly. So, for those people, this post is my response — since it obviously won’t fit into a tweet or even a thread of tweets.

So, with that said, you don’t have to agree with me that TMZ was in the right. But here’s why I’m going to argue that they were:

Bryant’s helicopter crashed at about 12:45 p.m. EST Sunday afternoon. TMZ’s report was published at 2:24 p.m. EST, nearly two hours later. That isn’t exactly the speed of light in the news industry. The identities of celebrities and even non-celebrities who are killed in tragic accidents are reported more quickly than that on a regular basis.

The immediate question is how did TMZ obtain its information? How does it always obtain its information? When it comes to the deaths of celebrities, TMZ is almost always first … and incredibly accurate. That means the outlet has well-placed sources … and it almost certainly means that it also has well-paid sources. Sources who are embedded within emergency services in L.A. and New York. Sources who are embedded within the coroners’ offices in those cities.

If someone wanted to question TMZ’s ethics for paying sources, that’s fair game. As a journalistic practice, that’s considered a big no-no in most newsrooms. However, that’s not the issue that was raised by the LAC sheriff. He was addressing the speed at which TMZ reported that Bryant was aboard the helicopter.

So there’s a lot to delve into here, but let’s be clear about one thing on the front end: there is an etiquette to breaking news about fatalities. You do want to give authorities appropriate time to release the identities. No one wants to learn of a loved one’s death by just clicking on a news link by happenstance. That’s a gut-punch that’s far worse than the dreaded knock on the door by a law enforcement officer who is trained to break the news gently and provide support if needed. Reporting the news has to be balanced with human dignity and a respect for people.

On a local level, we often learn the identities of accident victims within minutes — certainly in less than an hour — of an accident’s occurrence. But we don’t report that right away, to give authorities the appropriate time to notify the victims’ next of kin. Our rule is no accident scene photos on social media, if it’s a fatality, until such a time, as well. There’s no rule of thumb on exactly how long to wait, so, for us, it’s simple: almost all fatalities that we will report are traffic accidents that are being investigated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Therefore, when an accident occurs, our first step is to contact the THP’s public information officer and submit a request for the preliminary report. THP is very reliable and easy to work with, and will release a preliminary report fairly quickly — but only after next-of-kin has been notified. And we respect that process. If THP dragged its feet and didn’t release information until days later, the process wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it is a process that does work.

Back to L.A., keep in mind that the sheriff’s comments were made hours after the crash occurred, and were in response to a question about why he wasn’t confirming the identities. As of late Monday, the identities of the crash victims still hadn’t been “officially” confirmed the coroner’s office in L.A.

If you read the reaction to the sheriff’s comments, a lot of people assumed that the sheriff was saying that Bryant’s wife and the rest of his family learned of his death from the TMZ report. But if you re-read the sheriff’s comments, he doesn’t actually say that, and appears to be speaking hypothetically about why he wasn’t confirming the identities at that point, several hours later. Keep in mind that LAC authorities and TMZ have tangoed many times in the past when it comes to the deaths of celebrities — such as Whitney Houston’s death, which TMZ was also the first to report. No doubt, the sheriff is frustrated with TMZ. But that time and that place was not the appropriate setting to go after TMZ. The sheriff could’ve made the same point he was making without calling out TMZ. That’s the broadest reason why the sheriff was wrong.

So was TMZ wrong to report Bryant’s death so quickly? I think the answer is no. It goes back to the original timeline: Nearly an hour and 45 minutes had passed between when the helicopter went down and when TMZ’s report was published. In the meantime, the LAC sheriff’s office had been actively breaking news about the crash on Twitter. At 1:14 p.m. EST — about a half-hour after the crash occurred — the sheriff’s office tweeted that there was a downed aircraft. At 1:34 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office tweeted that the downed aircraft was a helicopter, that the flames had been extinguished, and included photos from the scene. At 2:25 p.m. EST, which was almost simultaneous with TMZ’s report at 2:24 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office confirmed that there were five fatalities and no survivors.

It is almost unthinkable that within that timeframe, authorities hadn’t had time to notify Bryant’s family. If it’s published that the family had, in fact, not been notified and that they learned of Bryant’s passing from TMZ’s report, I will eat my words. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said in a Tuesday radio interview that the site had spoken to Kobe Bryant’s reps before publishing its report and confirmed that his wife, Vanessa, had been notified. Could that be a baseless claim? Certainly. But imagine the egg on TMZ’s face if Bryant’s reps stepped forward to contradict Levin’s comments, saying they hadn’t been contacted. So it seems pretty likely that TMZ did, in fact, confirm with Bryant’s reps that Vanessa had been notified of her husband’s death.

Here’s why TMZ, which is owned by the same parent company that owns CNN, wasn’t wrong: just about every media outlet in the world piggy-backed off the original report. Many of the more prominent outlets used their own sources to verify the TMZ report, but those reports were flying very quickly, within minutes (in some cases, within seconds) of the initial report by TMZ. That includes ESPN and many others. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, a highly-respected NBA reporter, was one of the last major journalistic sources to confirm Bryant’s death, and his report came at 2:51 p.m. EST, about 27 minutes after TMZ’s initial report.

If the argument is that authorities theoretically hadn’t had time to notify the families, how much time would’ve been appropriate? Would the two hours and six minutes (the timing of Adrian Wojo’s tweet) have been more appropriate than the hour and 39 minutes that elapsed between the crash and TMZ’s report? That really isn’t a very significant difference.

Some have suggested that TMZ should’ve waited until authorities confirmed the identities. But that process would’ve taken hours, if not days. And there’s no way you can keep a lid on information for that long. If the official news sources, who rely on their readers’ trust, had sat by and waited on the authorities to release the names, bloggers and twitter accounts all over the world would’ve inevitably released that information.

The point is that if TMZ hadn’t published its information when it did, other outlets would’ve quickly followed — and it would’ve been within minutes, not hours.

So if TMZ is going to be condemned, the sheriff should’ve probably condemned the news media in general. Sure, all those other outlets may have been just confirming what TMZ originally reported … but by publishing information from a TMZ report quickly, they’re really no different from TMZ, which published information from a confidential source quickly.

If the sheriff has an ax to grind, it’s with whomever provided that information to TMZ. Clearly, there are leaks somewhere within — if not the sheriff’s own department, then somewhere else within LAC emergency services. (According to Levin, the initial tip came from a law enforcement officer, meaning it was very possibly someone from the sheriff’s department.) It’s very likely that the person providing that information did so with the promise of a paycheck from TMZ — but, as I said above, TMZ’s ethics of paying sources weren’t what the sheriff was questioning at the press conference.

Meanwhile, TMZ’s report — however quickly it may have been published — was accurate. There were plenty of other news outlets, considered more reputable than TMZ, that got it badly wrong — horrifically wrong. And they somehow managed to escape the crosshairs of criticism.

Consider this: Which is worse? TMZ reporting nearly two hours after the crash that Kobe Bryant was on board? Or ABC News reporting on the air that all four of Kobe Bryant’s children were on the helicopter?

And this: A Washington Post reporter tweeted a flashback to the Kobe Bryant rape case by linking a nearly four-year-old story from The Daily Beast. Keep in mind that Bryant was not charged criminally in connection with those allegations. Is it really relevant to dredge up that old story on the day that the world is mourning his death? What purpose does that serve other than an attempt to taint his legacy? (The Washington Post ultimately suspended the reporter, Felicia Sonmez, for the tweet and related tweets, all of which have since been deleted.)

As the misinformation continued to spread, ABC News walked back its reporter’s earlier comment that all four of Kobe Bryant’s daughters were on board the helicopter, but made another mistake in the process by reporting that none of his daughters were on board. The first source to correct that report by confirming that one daughter, Gigi, had perished on the flight was, ironically enough, TMZ.

But because the LAC sheriff, for whatever reason, chose to take issue with the timing of TMZ’s report, it is TMZ alone that is bearing the brunt of the blame. Look, I still think it’s a sleazy news organization. I still won’t follow or read it. But to hang TMZ in effigy for its work in reporting Bryant’s death just simply isn’t right. At the very least, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Basketball, Human Nature

Celebrity deaths grip us as a society, and there’s nothing wrong with that

Obviously the big news on Sunday was the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who were among those killed in a helicopter crash in California.

Naturally, social media lit up with reactions as people from all walks of life remembered and mourned the death of the former Lakers star.

And, naturally, there were plenty of folks who decried the attention that Bryant’s death was receiving. One story in particular that began making the rounds on Facebook was the account of an American military helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan in 2005, killing all 20 of the special ops service members who were aboard.

I’m going to be honest: it’s a little irritating when folks try to use deaths to score points for an argument that really shouldn’t be an argument in the first place. And something that happened nearly 15 years ago has exactly zero bearing on Sunday’s tragedy.

I understand their sentiment; I really do. A large number of people who were fighting for our freedoms and way of life died, and no one cared. A guy who makes a lot of money to play the game of basketball died, and everyone cares. It hardly seems fair. It hardly is fair, if we’re being honest. And, yet, at the same time, it’s perfectly understandable. (And it should be pointed out that the 2005 helicopter crash gripped the nation because of the number of victims; perhaps not on the same level as Kobe Bryant’s death, but moreso than an incident in which simply one or two servicemen or women are killed.)

There is a reason that the deaths of celebrities grip us, whether they’re sports stars or movie icons or legendary singers. These people are very much a part of our lives. Whether it’s the sports they play, the movies they appear in or the songs they sing, they come into our homes night after night after night, day after day, for years, whether it’s through the television, the radio, our phone, etc. We feel like we know them, even though we’ve never met them. And, in a certain sense, we do. We often know more about them — their spouses’ names, their kids’ names, their political preferences, their likes and dislikes — than we know about many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis.

For those of us who are a part of Generation X and are basketball fans, Kobe Bryant was one of a select few players who defined the game. I don’t watch NBA games anymore, but there was a time when I was very much attuned to the league. I was a San Antonio Spurs fan, so Kobe Bryant was a player who it was very natural to love to hate. During the era when I kept up with every game, every state line, every transaction during an NBA season, the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Spurs and the Lakers were the undisputed powers of the Western Conference. So I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant. I couldn’t stand him because he was lethal…and because he was so confident. He was the best player of his day, and he knew it…and he made you accept it. It didn’t matter if the Lakers were playing the Spurs or the Sun or someone else entirely…I was paying attention to see if they got beat.

Contrast that with soldiers who die in a war zone. They’re just names we don’t know. Certainly, as we learn the stories behind who they were, and their sacrifice, it drives home the tragedy of their death and that becomes real to us. But we don’t need anyone to tell those stories when it’s an icon of popular culture who dies, because they’re actually a part of our lives. 

That doesn’t mean the celebrities’ lives are any more meaningful than the service members’ lives. But, by the same token, the service members’ lives are no more meaningful than the celebrities’ lives. I think most would agree that fighting for our nation’s armed forces is a profession that’s more noble and honorable than being paid to entertain the masses, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and we’re all on equal footing. So it’s perfectly natural to feel impacted by the shocking news of a celebrity’s death.

And there’s no shame in that. My son said yesterday that Kobe Bryant’s death had impacted him more than any other celebrity death. I didn’t sit him down for a talk about how he should feel ashamed because he placed more value on some basketball player than on a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. What he felt was perfectly natural. He is a huge basketball fan; spends a lot of time every day watching basketball videos. He is too young to remember Kobe Bryant when Kobe was in his prime, but he’s seen all the highlight videos and is well aware of who Kobe Bryant was as both a basketball player and as a father and human being after basketball.

There’s another part of the story that causes it to grip us even tighter, of course, and that’s the death of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who was on board. Like her father, Gigi was a very talented basketball player — one who was probably set to elevate the game of women’s basketball. That’s a bold statement, perhaps, but she was positioned to become the face of the WNBA in a few years ago. And while Pat Summitt blazed a trail for women in basketball and other pioneers followed as both players and coaches to make that trail easier to follow, the women’s game still isn’t on equal footing with the men’s game. Not even close. Gigi seemed poised to help the women’s game help take that next step if she continued to realize her full potential as she grew up.

It’s okay to be stunned, even saddened, by events like Sunday’s. Kobe Bryant may not have known life as most of us know it — living paycheck to paycheck, deciding whether to go on vacation or replace a failing HVAC unit in our home, struggling with a 9-to-5 job that bores us — but 41 is still much too young to die … he had overcome his transgressions and imperfections as a young adult to become a shining example of a role model for youth who look up to professional athletes … and nobody, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, should be doomed to a fiery death with their 13-year-old child as their failed aircraft plummets to earth. 

Maybe our society does place too much adulation on sports stars and celebrities. Maybe we do tend to tune out the things that are really important a little too much. But there are millions of Americans who will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kobe Bryant had died, just as there are still millions who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Elvis died. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.