Traditional television news organizations found themselves getting handily beaten last week–in some cases by hours–by a celebrity gossip Website.
But just because TMZ was first–and right–in reporting the news of Michael Jackson’s death doesn’t mean that news organizations will be any more inclined to give the site credit on the next big celebrity scoop.
“We don’t have enough experience with them,” said one TV news executive, adding that the shocking nature of the pop star’s passing called for an abundance of caution. “We might have taken their word about Farrah [Fawcett, who died the same day]. You don’t want to get Michael Jackson’s death wrong.”
TMZ has been on the forefront of celebrity news since it first reported Mel Gibson’s drunk driving arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic tirade. The site was first to report the deaths of Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, and went public with a recording of Alec Baldwin’s profanity laced voicemail to his then 11-year-old daughter in 2007.
To Harvey Levin, TMZ’s executive producer, the lack of on-air respect from mainstream media is hypocritical.
“I got phone calls yesterday from the heads of huge media outlets asking me, ‘Are you sure?’” Levin told B&C in an interview Friday. “I wanted to say to them, ‘Is this how you second-source a story?’”
In breaking news situations, reporting what another news organization has already reported is common. In the case of Jackson’s death, several TV news organizations cited other conventional news outlets. CNN cited the Los Angeles Times and CBS News. The New York Times cited the Associated Press. Only Fox News credited TMZ. During the 4 p.m. hour on June 25, Neil Cavuto told viewers that TMZ was reporting that Jackson had been taken to the hospital in cardiac arrest. The network continued to cite TMZ’s reporting until independently confirming his death at 6:47 p.m. ET.
CNN was the last of the cable news networks to unequivocally report that Jackson had died. The network attributed reports of Jackson’s death to other sources until they received official confirmation from the Los Angeles County coroner at 7:25 p.m. ET. (TMZ is a joint venture between AOL and Telepictures, both divisions of Time Warner, which owns CNN.)
“Given the nature of this story we exercised caution,” CNN said in a statement on June 25.
Also at issue are TMZ’s news gathering tactics. Mainstream television news organizations pay to license photographs and videos from interview subjects while also picking up expenses to travel for interviews. The practice is a fig leaf to be sure. But paying outright for information — Levin told the New York Times that TMZ pays “tip fees” — crosses another line.
“While you can’t deny them a triumph here,” said another executive, “they should be prepared for some scrutiny of their own both in terms of how they conduct business and what their future is. Are they simply going to own the gossip market online in Los Angeles? Maybe, and maybe that’s a business.”
And while TV news organizations have cited TMZ in past reports, particularly in their coverage of the Gibson and Baldwin stories, the lurid nature of the news that TMZ trades in and the fact that the web sites pays for information means that news organizations will continue to exercise caution, if only to preserve the appearance of decorum.
“We are reluctant to give credit where credit is due because [TMZ] is not a conventional news organization,” admitted one producer. “What if they were wrong? Are you going to mortgage your news organization on the chance that TMZ is right?”