By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
11:51 AM EST, February 22, 2014
Five years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about the tabloid website TMZ. It sometimes paid for news, and that put it outside the realm of trustworthy journalism. End of story.
But last week, with TMZ posting video of Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his apparently unconscious fiancee off an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, I realized my attitude has been changing. Or maybe, as President Barack Obama says of his view on same-sex marriage, I should say it's evolved.
Given the tremendous disconnect between the Ray Rice on that video, who is shown pushing Janay Palmer around the floor like a slab of meat, and the Ray Rice celebrated by the NFL and much of sports media as a model player and citizen, I have to acknowledge that I am grateful to TMZ for the offstage look it offered in a video confirmed by Rice's lawyer as authentic but incomplete.
I am also grateful, I realized, for the offstage look TMZ offered in September of former Ravens offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Jacoby Jones, a woman named Sweet Pea and a party bus event in Washington that wound up with Jones being injured and police being called in. The scene TMZ described in its account of the event was considerably at odds with coach John Harbaugh's version early in the season of how in control and focused the Ravens were.
And, thinking back through the last few years, I have also decided I am most grateful to TMZ for revealing the anti-Semitic words of Mel Gibson and the racist rant of Michael Richards. I was also impressed with the website's reporting on the death of Michael Jackson.
The question, however, remains: Is TMZ doing good work that deserves some of my respect and gratitude? Or are my standards getting lower? Maybe tabloid online operations like TMZ.com have lowered journalistic standards in general, and my evolving attitude is mostly a reflection of my acceptance of such decline.
There's no doubt that journalistic standards are being challenged by the epic changes in technology, lifestyle and media business models. Does paying for video and sometimes being dead wrong even matter any more?
TMZ acknowledges that it sometimes pays for video but declined Friday to say whether it paid for the footage posted on Rice last week.
Evan Rosenblum, executive producer for TMZ and TMZ Sports, says there are strict standards of verification for anything the site publishes.
“We consider ourselves a very serious news operation,” he said. “And we vet stories thoroughly and seriously. Our reputation as reputable journalists is the most important thing.”
Rosenblum said he believes TMZ Sports, which has its own section within the TMZ site, got the video because it worked the Rice story harder than anyone else.
“Ever since the news broke that Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City, we've been on top of the story. Clearly, Ray Rice is a huge star, and this is a shocking incident,” he said.
“We were trying to reach every single person connected to this thing, and you know how it goes in news some times: You talk to one person, who gets you to another person, and another person. That's kind of how this situation happened with this video — we ended up getting in touch with somebody who had some footage.”
Once Rosenblum had the video, he said, he called Rice's attorney, Michael Diamondstein, and “had a thorough conversation, out of fairness giving them a chance to tell their side of the story.”
While there have been reports saying there is yet-to-be-published video showing Rice hitting his fiancee and knocking her out, as charged in the court summons, Rosenblum said TMZ is not the source.
“If that exists, we have not seen it,” he said of such video.
“The fact of the matter is we don't know for sure what happened in that elevator before the doors opened,” Rosenblum added. “ We're all trying to figure that out.”
Media critics, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how they feel about TMZ and the power it wields these days.
“TMZ is a difficult case, because it is often right about its celebrity scoops, but it has also made some high-profile mistakes,” Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR News, wrote in an email. “Last year, it reported rapper Lil Wayne was receiving the last rites after a series of seizures, which people close to him denied.”
For all the scoops TMZ has enjoyed in recent years, Deggans pointed out that it was also the site that published a picture in 2009 purporting to be President John F. Kennedy surrounded by naked women on a yacht. Turned out it was a doctored picture that had been taken in 1967, four years after Kennedy's assassination.
“It's tough to know if TMZ makes any more mistakes than any other media outlet,” Deggans said. “But they have helped normalize the consumption of news developed under questionable circumstances, with little transparency about their reporting methods. We don't know when or how they pay for scoops when they do, and it is hard to track their accuracy rate because they don't seem to have a roster of corrections available anywhere.”
Once upon a time, Deggans said, “Such methods were controversial and kept certain outlets from acceptance by mainstream news consumers. Now, the public has seemingly accepted that the price for big scoops like Michael Jackson's death is that outlets such as TMZ will pay people and use other unclear methods in reporting.”
His bottom line: TMZ has “gained credibility,” but it also has come to “embody a lot of what is troubling about modern entertainment journalism, including an insensitivity about the people they are skewering and a tendency to make their mistakes vanish without much acknowledgment.”
For the record, TMZ did correct the faked Kennedy picture after The Smoking Gun revealed that the website had been duped.
As for the seizures, according to the Los Angeles Times, Lil Wayne later told an LA radio station that he is an epileptic who had multiple seizures and was gravely ill.
When asked specifically about the TMZ reports of the extent of his illness, the rapper said, “I can't get upset at TMZ for doing what they do.”
Howard Kurtz, host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News, has been treating TMZ like a serious player for years in his previous jobs as Washington Post media correspondent, Daily Beast Washington bureau chief and host of “Reliable Sources” on CNN.
“TMZ may have a tabloid sensibility, but it consistently beats the mainstream media on important stories,” he wrote in an email. “The Ray Rice video is just the latest example of TMZ's knack of obtaining damaging footage or documents about celebrities from different walks of life. And while the website sometimes pays for these scoops, they are exclusives that force the rest of the press to play catch-up.”
My bottom line: Despite its journalistic sins, TMZ has become an invaluable site on the media landscape.
The hype and image-building machines that athletes, performers and politicians have at their disposal once they demonstrate their bankability have become all-powerful in American life. They pump out images and narratives that often have little or nothing to do with the truth — and play us as fools, as we do everything from buying their jerseys to voting for them.
I believe TMZ has grown in direct proportion to its ability to puncture some of those media lies and spin. We could use a few more online and social media sites doing the same.
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