It was a story bemoaning the loss of one of rock music’s most beloved stars which also served as a parable for the unreliable nature of the modern media landscape.
The death of the US singer, Tom Petty, has prompted an outpouring of grief from across the world of entertainment, with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger among those praising his musical legacy.
But the tributes to the 66-year-old have been undermined by an embarrassing inquest into how several leading news outlets prematurely reported his death.
For several hours on Monday evening, social media was abuzz with rumours of the singer’s passing, prompted by a report from the entertainment site, TMZ.
At 8pm, it published a story detailing how Petty, best known for his hits Free Fallin’, Refugee and American Girl, had been taken to a Californian hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest. Some 26 minutes later, it updated the story and, citing unnamed sources, said a decision had been taken to switch off his life support.
At the time, Petty was in UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, but was very much alive. Yet the clamour saw other respected media outlets, such as CBS, follow up the story by 9pm, even publishing his obituary.
As news spread, some of Petty’s peers, including Jon Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, and Shania Twain, spoke of their loss, and a memorial was scheduled at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The trade paper, Variety, ran its own report, citing an unnamed source confirming the rocker’s death, while the Huffington Post and Rolling Stone also ran stories.
But by 9:55pm, Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had no information about Petty’s death and that “initial information was inadvertently provided to some media sources.” It added that it had no investigative role in the matter and apologised for any “inconvenience in this reporting.”
After the confusion, anger followed. Petty’s daughter, AnnaKim Violette, issued a stern rebuke on Instagram to Rolling Stone magazine.
“My dad is not dead yet but your f****** magazine is,” she wrote, before adding: “How dare you report that my father has died just to get press because your articles and photos are so dated … This is my father not a celebrity. An artist and human being.”
A host of outlets went on to retract their reports, further muddying the picture, with CBS issuing a statement maintaining it had “reported information obtained officialy from the LAPD about Tom Petty”.
It was not until just after 5am yesterday that a spokeswoman for Petty confirmed the entertainer had indeed died, but at 4.40am. Petty’s official website was updated with a black and white photograph of the singer featuring the words 1950-2017 and underneath that #RIPTOMPETTY.
The LAPD has since tried to clarify events, but conceded that it could not rule out the possibility that someone in the force had spoken to reporters.
Yesterday, Sir Paul McCartney sent his best wishes to Petty’s family, while his former Beatles bandmate, Ringo Starr, sharing a nostalgic photograph of himself in conversation with Petty, writing: “God bless Tom Petty peace and love to his family I’m sure going to miss you Tom.”
Singer Peter Gabriel posted a long message on Twitter, writing: “Very sad to say goodbye to Tom Petty, he was a kind and generous man, an excellent musician and writer and we had daughters who have grown up together since their friendship at Sarah Lawrence College.”
Petty’s worldwide sales topped 80 million records and his band recently finished a 40th anniversary tour.