By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 2
It's out there. All of it. Her name. Her number. Where she lives. Where she went to high school. The color of her eyes. Even the floor plan to her parents' house. Anything and everything to satisfy your interest. Your curiosity. Your rubbernecker's impulse.
Your desire to know. That's what makes it a story, really, makes anything a story. Someone to tell ... and someone else to listen.
You won't find much about Kobe Bryant's accuser/alleged victim in the mainstream press. Her age, her hometown, where she works. Vague testimonials from those who know her -- and those who claim to. The spin emanating from each legal camp. And that's about it.
For the rest, you need to turn elsewhere. Both outward and inward. To yourselves. Via the Internet. In chat rooms. On message boards. There, you'll find the juice. Things you aren't supposed to know. And maybe shouldn't know. Facts that may or may not be true. Information that is wholly unfiltered, not to mention unvarnished.
Online, the medium is the instant messager. There's no need for the media middleman. Let alone the editorial and legal judgment, the checks and balances, that are supposed to govern news outlets such as ESPN and the New York Times. Jayson Blair exempted.
Log on, and you're standing in a crowded bar, shouting across the counter. Or sitting in a corner booth, exchanging conspiratorial whispers. Information flows like suds from a tap, like spilled beer running along a gutter.
So what do you drink? Who do you trust? How much is too much? And who decides?
In the Bryant case and in general, those are the questions facing the press and the public. For the media, the Internet has changed the entire reporting dynamic -- of where stories come from, of where they end up, of what constitutes news in the first place.
In the past, sports reporters and their subjects mostly operated under a gentleman's agreement -- at least, when it came to personal matters. Private indiscretions were just that -- private. Think JFK's numerous dalliances. Even today, it wouldn't be unusual for an NBA beat writer to join a few players at a strip club ... without penning an embarrassing two-part expose.
But if said players were married, well-paid pillars of the community, playing in a publicly funded stadium, and things got out-of-hand raunchy? With rumors flooding a team chat room? And incriminating photos appearing on a message board? Then what?
Mike Price knows the answer. Larry Eustachy, too.
In the rapid-fire, hyper-competitive 24-hour news world, there's no sitting on information, no matter how distasteful. Not if the other guy has it. And especially not if he's running with it. Which brings us to another gentlemen's agreement -- the one governing media coverage of Kobe's alleged victim.
If a network, web site or major paper breaks ranks and publishes the goods -- unlikely, given the nature of the case, but certainly possible -- others will surely follow suit. Maybe not everyone. But enough outlets to make the point moot.
Ethics-wise, would that be the right thing to do? Probably not. But don't kid yourself, not for a second. The mainstream media has already saturated Eagle, Colorado, combing the town for prurient details. And when you're almost to the top of the bleachers, what's one more step?
For similar reasons, reporters can't afford to ignore the cyberspace grapevine. Not unless they want to get scooped. Even if 99 percent of the information out there is either unsubstantiated rumor or libelous innuendo -- take your pick -- the other one percent makes all the difference.
When the University of Arkansas dismissed basketball coach Nolan Richardson, the story broke on a fan web site. Just like the Price and Eustachy cases. And a scandal involving former Alabama football coach Mike DuBose and his secretary. Which goes a long way toward explaining why football spokespeople at Florida State have to spend a chunk of each fall dispelling online rumors of Bobby Bowden's impending retirement, year after year after year.
"Online, you've got somebody who is literally nameless and faceless, who can say whatever they want," says Rob Wilson, Florida State's assistant athletic director for media and public relations. "And the newspaper people have to check on it. So they usually call me. I have to take a lot of ridiculous questions that they're frustrated to ask and I'm frustrated to answer."
Unlike the press, the Internet public is under no obligation to check the facts. Get confirmation from at least two sources. Answer to editorial oversight. Uphold a reputation for accuracy. Or follow any sort of ethical principles governing what should and should not be news. The Net provides near-absolute freedom of speech, a soapbox for anyone with a phone line and a sliver of bandwidth. The news is what you make it. Which is liberating in principle ... and perilous in practice.
Chat rooms and message boards can be a coarse place, rife with base vulgarity. Browsing the FreeKobe.com boards yesterday, you would have come across one of the foulest screeds imaginable, a racist, self-proclaimed "guide" to the N-word. The poster, of course, was anonymous, protected in the same cowardly way that American League pitchers are protected from retaliatory beanballs.
Take what you read with a grain of salt. Most people instinctively know this. But on the Internet, it's more like a pillar. When former Illinois basketball coach Bill Self left for the University of Kansas earlier this year, the moderator of an Illini fan board created odds for a list of potential replacements. As a joke, he included former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy as a 1,000-to-1 shot. A day later, a caller on a local sports talk radio show claimed that Van Gundy was spotted outside Assembly Hall, the school's basketball arena.
Travis Taylor, a nondescript high school football player from upstate New York, recently became a national Top 100 recruit after a series of laudatory -- and false -- message board posts on a handful of respected recruiting web sites. Taylor took a free campus visit to Michigan State and was courted by Florida and Ohio State before the scam was uncovered. Such is the power of suggestion.
With fact and fiction co-mingling in the online ether, overlapping like waves, who's to say if the information on Kobe's alleged victim is even true, let alone appropriate? And how much does that really matter, given that the genie is well outside the bottle?
Here's what we know: It's out there, jumping from screen to screen. And all of us want more -- more facts, more gossip, more tidbits to chew on. Something to fill the 24-hour news cycle. Something to share at the water cooler. Something to satisfy our innate desire for stories.
The question is: Do any of us know what to do when we get it?
Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.