Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty died at age 66 on Monday of cardiac arrest, as confirmed by his management just after midnight. But for several hours earlier on Monday, the rock star was dead to some members of the news media, even if he wasn’t in fact.
Though gravely ill and lingering near death, Petty was still clinging to life when CBS News incorrectly reported that he had died. The report — which the outlet blamed on unidentified sources in the Los Angeles Police Department — was later withdrawn and corrected.
But not before touching off a stampede of he’s-dead/no-he’s-not reporting by other news organizations. The result was a monumental mishmash of confusion, joining the long history of misreporting on the deaths of well-known people.
TMZ, the tabloid website with a history of being first on celebrity deaths, was the first outlet to report that Petty was in the hospital and soon updated its story to say: “TMZ reports that Petty had no brain activity when he got to the hospital and a decision was made to pull him from life support,” while never pronouncing that the “American Girl” singer had died.
Rolling Stone magazine reported around 4:15 p.m. EST that Petty had died and published a lengthy obituary of him. But the magazine upgraded Petty’s condition to “hospitalized” about an hour later without explaining what had happened to its earlier report. A note at the bottom of its story said, “This story is developing.”
Billboard, the music trade magazine, hedged a bit, citing a “report” in an otherwise matter-of-fact headline: “Tom Petty Dead at 66: Report.”
But Variety, the show business newspaper, went straight at it. “Tom Petty Dead at 66,” said its headline in late afternoon, without qualification. It later “updated” its story, saying that Petty was “reportedly clinging to life .”