TMZ's scoops on the death of "King of Pop" Michael Jackson this week may mark a turning point in the brand's place in the news media landscape.
Considered by traditional media to be a purveyor of tabloid trash since its launch as a Website in 2005 and as a TV show in 2007--and thus not a reliable source--TMZ trounced all news rivals multiple times in 24 hours on a story of mass global interest.
While TMZ's Jackson reports are only the latest in a long line of celebrity-related scoops, the outfit's reports on the pop star's death were the biggest display yet of the news team's prowess. TMZ was not only first to report on Jackson's hospitalization, death and cause of death--parts of a story that every major news outlet wound up chasing--it also had the distinction of getting the details of his death precise the first time around.
Still, many news outlets opted to source reports from more traditional sources, particularly the Los Angeles Times, rather than rely on TMZ.
On June 25, TMZ was far out in front in reporting that Jackson had been brought to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, suffered from cardiac arrest and then, at 2:41 p.m. PT, they reported that Jackson had died. The next morning, on June 26, TMZ also was out early with a report that Jackson may have died from a long addiction to Demerol and then an overdose, possibly administered by his personal physician.
"I got phone calls yesterday from the heads of huge media outlets asking me, ‘Are you sure?'" TMZ Executive Producer Harvey Levin told B&C in an interview Friday. "I wanted to say to them, ‘Is this how you second-source a story?'"
While Levin was taking those calls, many news outlets and blogs began reporting what the Los Angeles Times was publishing instead of relying on TMZ's report. The hitch: LA Times didn't have the story quite right. TMZ did.
As the news was breaking that Jackson had been brought to the hospital unconscious, the LA Times reported that Jackson arrived at UCLA in "a deep coma." However, Jackson was never in a coma. He had no pulse when paramedics arrived at his Holmby Hills home, and UCLA doctors then spent an hour trying to revive an unresponsive Jackson upon his arrival at the hospital, Jackson's brother, Jermaine Jackson, later said in a press conference.
TMZ has broken a string of major celebrity stories, including Heath Ledger's death, Anna Nicole Smith's death, Jett Travolta's death and Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest (see related story, "The Man Who Broke the 'Mad Mel' Story").
Levin told the LA Times that he didn't see the lack of credit from news orgs as a ding against TMZ's reputation as a trustworthy source, or seem to necessarily expect to get more credit right away.
"That's typical," Levin told the LA Times when asked about rivals' hesitation to source the site. "No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That's how competitors handle it. There's no issue about our credibility."