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TMZ gets the job done

Photo by Marta Kierkus

The number one goal of any news organization is to break the news and that is what TMZ does.

Throughout their nine-year history, TMZ has broken stories that have become major national and international news, including Michael Richards’ racist rant at a stand-up performance in 2006, and Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. More recently, they have broken the Donald Sterling, Jameis Winston, and Ray Rice stories in a period of 10 months.

While TMZ’s brand of in-your-face, paparazzi-style journalism may rankle some, the outlet has become a legitimate and necessary news source in the media industry.

The most common knock against TMZ is their perceived lack of editorial standards and ethics. However, editorial standards are a by-product of audience expectations. We expect in-depth analysis, research, fact-checking, and corroborating evidence and sources from mainstream Canadian publications like the Globe and Mail or the Ottawa Citizen. But those expectations don’t exist when we’re reading or watching TMZ-type content.

TMZ has never been shy to admit they pay for some of their content, and it’s fair to accuse TMZ of “checkbook journalism.” But as TMZ managing editor Harvey Levin has pointed out on several occasions, there’s a significant difference between paying a source for an interview, which provides an incentive to exaggerate or lie, versus paying a source for a photograph or a recording—hard evidence—which is a common enough practice among mainstream media outlets.

TMZ doesn’t deal in interviews or features. They deal in hard news.

Because TMZ isn’t held to the same expectations as mainstream news media, they are allowed to move forward with stories that their more established counterparts would hold back on due to lack of sourcing.

While no one would argue the Toronto Star hasn’t led the way in the coverage and analysis of Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s drug scandal, people are quick to forget that it was not the Star, but Gawker that broke the original story about a video of Ford smoking a crack pipe. Minutes after Gawker published their story, the Star put up an article that said their reporters had also seen the video, upwards of three times from late March to early April—way before Gawker published their story on May 16, 2013. Without Gawker making the first move, it’s hard to know when, if ever, the story would have gotten out.

The Ray Rice scandal followed a similar thread. This story is all over the news now, but the original incident—the night Rice knocked out his then-fiancée in an elevator—occurred in February. That’s seven months between when the incident occurred to when TMZ released the video. This means mainstream outlets failed to obtain the security footage, despite some of them, like ESPN’s Peter King, alluding to knowledge of its existence months before. Without TMZ’s aggressive reporting, Ray Rice would likely be taking the field for the Baltimore Ravens this very week.

TMZ doesn’t follow up, it doesn’t analyze, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It does what every news organization sets out to do: it breaks the news.

—Ryan Mallough

Journalists need to be held to a higher standard

Do we really live in an age in which gossip blogs like TMZ are being celebrated for their journalistic prowess?

After their recent break of the Ray Rice scandal and video, praise (and web traffic) has skyrocketed for the popular “news” site. The Daily Beast even hinted at the idea that TMZ deserves a Pulitzer Prize for their most recent scoop.

Let’s not get too carried away here. This is the same gossip blog that reports daily on Kim Kardashian’s hairstyle and the sobriety of Lindsay Lohan. They also have not been shy about posting photos and videos of victims of domestic abuse such as Janay Palmer (Ray Rice’s wife).

During the Rihanna-Chris Brown scandal, TMZ posted police report photos of her bruised and battered face during the investigation. Domestic abuse is already a terrible situation to be in without a sleazy website publicizing and profiting off your facial contusions.

This type of attack journalism threatens the right to privacy that, yes, even celebs are entitled to. A person’s profession doesn’t forfeit their right to basic privacy. Even the biggest showbiz divas should not be subjected to the entirety of the Internet watching their most private moments.

Defendants of TMZ’s methods claim that publishing pictures and videos of domestic abuse draws attention to the cause. But by publishing these kinds of pictures, TMZ is directly profiting off the misery of these survivors of domestic abuse.

And profit they do. The website experiences tens of millions of site visits every month, which translates to healthy profits for founder Harvey Levin, who is worth an estimated $15 million.

Levin is not financially benefiting from excellent journalism, or superb writing skills, or any other sort of talent. TMZ openly admits to buying photos and videos, while claiming all of their tips are well-researched and unsolicited. If Levin is willing to admit to buying leads, then what does he actually do for the stories headlining TMZ?

This type of “checkbook journalism,” whereby photos and stories are bought and sold, is insulting to actual journalists who bust their asses trying to research leads. In the race to report breaking news, TMZ simply buys their right to win.

While a free media is a necessity to a free society, reporters and journalists still must be held to a higher standard. The difference between reputable news outlets and gossip blogs is not only in the content they report, but how they report it.

There are many websites more deserving of your bandwidth than TMZ. Thousands of blogs containing interesting news, pictures, and opinions pop up every day. What we choose to view on the web determines the content available. So please, choose wisely.

—Sarah Bader