If not for TMZ, Ray Rice would be a Raven today

The Sun's David Zurawik lauds TMZ's reporting of the Ray Rice video, on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television.'

If not for TMZ, Ray Rice would still be a Raven today and back in the National Football League, having served his joke of a two-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell.

The assault on his then-fiancee in an elevator at a New Jersey casino would be largely behind him — with the public never having seen the brutality he inflicted upon her.


And the wide-ranging discussion about domestic violence that took place several nights last week at the top of network evening newscasts and all day and night on cable news channels would in all likelihood never have happened. Ditto for the deluge of words and images in newspapers and on websites and social media exploring the issue — often with insight and sensitivity.

Power of the press, huh?


Only some people, particularly in the world of legacy media, still can't bring themselves to think of TMZ and its companion site, TMZ Sports, which first broke the Rice video in February, as the press.

Memo to the head-in-the-sand gang: Get over it, grow up, quit being hypocrites and acknowledge the truth about the new media world we live in during these revolutionary times.

TMZ is the press, and, at least with its sports operation, has been breaking more and bigger stories than any of its competitors. And that includes everyone from The New York Times and the Associated Press to ESPN, which loves to boast about its investigative reporting even as it avoids discussion of its contractual relationships with leagues and performers that continually call its credibility into question.

In February, after the first video of Rice appeared, I wrote a column saying that five years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about the tabloid website. It sometimes paid for news, and that put it outside the realm of trustworthy journalism. End of story.

But seeing that first Rice video, I realized my attitude had been changing. Or maybe, as President Barack Obama says of his view on same-sex marriage, I should say it had evolved.

Either way, I decided that if I wanted to be a credible media critic, I had to start being honest about TMZ, whether I liked it or not.

I had not given TMZ its due last September for the backstage look it offered of Ravens 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.

The out-of-control scene TMZ described in its account of the event was decidedly at odds with the picture coach John Harbaugh was successfully selling to the local press of how focused the Ravens were as the season began. TMZ provided the first indication that the Ravens were not disciplined enough to even make the playoffs, let alone repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Nor had I given TMZ the credit it deserved in November when it broke the story that Florida State University Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston was under investigation by police in Tallahassee as the result of an allegation that he had sexually assaulted another student at the school.

When I talked in February to Evan Rosenblum, executive producer for TMZ and TMZ Sports, he emphasized that the sports operation was a separate entity and promised I'd see some big stories there in coming months.

He didn't disappoint. In April, TMZ Sports posted audio of then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling not just making racist comments, but extending them to the point where they offered a look inside the very mindset of racist thinking. Sterling has since been banned from the NBA for life and the team has been sold.

Beyond sports, some of TMZ's other widely known scoops involved 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 medical details involved in the death of Michael Jackson.


So, given that record, why shouldn't TMZ be praised for its journalistic enterprise? Because it paid for the Rice video, which Rosenblum acknowledged in a Sun interview last week?

Guess what? Virtually everyone in journalism today is paying for videos in one form or another. It just depends on how you define "pay."

At the major networks and news cable channels, they call it a "licensing fee." Covering everything from interviews to exclusive pictures, it's been an accepted practice for more than a decade.

The "licensing fee" for the right piece of video can be several hundred thousand dollars, such as the $215,000 ABC News confirmed paying in the Casey Anthony case in 2011. The breakdown was $200,000 to Anthony, and $15,000 to the guy who found the body of Anthony's 2-year-old daughter. (Anthony was found not guilty of murder and most other serious charges in the girl's death.)

Given the power of video to drive online traffic, and the need by legacy media outlets to grow and monetize their digital operations, there's a not a newsroom in the country that won't barter for video. And any news executive who says otherwise is either a liar or on her or his way out of a job.

In addition to my job as a media critic at The Sun, I have taught media ethics at Goucher College for almost two decades. So I've done some serious moral reasoning about matters like this on two fronts.

As long as no laws are broken, what matters more to me than how the video is obtained is whether it was properly verified and vetted before being published.

The epic failure by TMZ in that regard came in 2009 when the site published a picture purporting to show 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.

That's bad, but it's also five years ago, and TMZ did correct and apologize after the Smoking Gun website exposed the picture as a hoax.

Here's why last week's video revelation took me beyond questioning my own standards for praising the tabloid website in February to saying, "God bless TMZ again and again" on my Z on TV blog last Monday. It's because the multibillion-dollar NFL and multimillion-dollar Baltimore Ravens organizations had gone into high spin cycle since February in telling us what a good and contrite person Rice was and how fair they had been in handling and "punishing" the one lapse by this model citizen.

The powers that be decided Rice still had value to them, and the big boys' spin machines were on his side — truth, fairness and full disclosure for the people who bought his jersey be damned.

It reached its zenith with training camp this summer and a picture of owner Steve Bisciotti hugging Rice. Harbaugh told reporters that Rice is "a heck of a guy" who'd "done everything right" since that night in the casino. Kevin Byrne, senior VP for public and community relations, pitched in with an embarrassing piece on his "Byrne Identity" blog about how much respect he had for Rice.

And, in the main, the local media, the folks who are supposed to be our surrogates, so accepted the spin and passed it on to fans that Rice got a standing ovation at M&T Bank Stadium for the team's first exhibition game. A standing ovation after the February video that showed him dragging his unconscious fiancee off the elevator like a slab of meat!

You bet, God bless TMZ for doing what the mainstream sports media didn't — nationally or locally.


Rosenblum told me last week that the NFL's handling of the matter "smells of a coverup" and "deception," and that TMZ is going full-bore to find the facts.

The Associated Press arguably scored a mini-scoop Wednesday when it quoted an anonymous source saying he had sent the NFL a tape of what went on in the elevator — a tape the NFL still says it never saw until TMZ posted it Monday. AP had a 12-second audio with an unnamed person allegedly at a phone number assigned to the NFL office acknowledging receipt of the tape.

I had to smile at the thought of the once-mighty Associated Press trying to play catchup to TMZ — and using anonymous sources and unnamed people at unconfirmed locations to do so.

Given the choice, I'll take the paid-for video from the tabloid website any day.


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