Don’t Blame The Messenger: A Case for Defending TMZ

Law enforcement in Los Angeles County has drawn first blood against online celebrity news organization TMZ. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s department admonished the online news organization for reporting that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, January 26th before its members could officially notify the victims’ next of kin.

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Screengrab capture Twitter @TMZ

Bearer of Bad News

Being on the receiving end of hearing that a loved one has died is never easy, no matter who the messenger is. If the death is unexpected, let alone violent, only makes the news more unbearable.

No “good way” exists for the family of the victims of a helicopter crash to hear that no survivors were recovered from a fiery ball high above the hills surrounding Malibu, California. The healing will never be complete for those who loved: Kobe Bryant, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, Alyssa Atobelli, John Atobelli, Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.

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Screengrab Twitter @LASDMurakami

The space shuttle Challenger exploded on live television in 1986 killing everyone on board. Surely family and friends were taken aback at the horror that unfolded before their eyes. Among others, family members of Cantor Fitzgerald’s employees who were working when an airplane flew into the World Trade Center, would have benefit from preparing, but instead all were shocked as the towers imploded in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Accidents happen.  Notification of the sudden death of Kobe Bryant was big news. Peoples’ horrified reaction upon learning that family members (who were aware that people they loved were also in the helicopter) were notified of the accident via TMZ is understandable.  This happened simply because the news worthiness of the celebrity on board of the downed helicopter and it is indeed regrettable. It’s a sad, sad story.

Let’s make this clear:  TMZ reporting on the facts as they knew them, as soon as they felt certain of it, did nothing wrong.

Hero Worshiping

Hearing that a celebrity died evokes similar feelings as it was a family member. No one wants to learn from a Tweet that someone close to them died in an accident. Our country’s most revered heroes aren’t (as they are in some cultures) teachers, scientists, revolutionaries, writers, or statesmen; we make gods out of professional athletes.

We cannot escape celebrity culture. Helicopters fly over “private” weddings and disrupt solemn funerals. The tabloids, gossip columns fueled by paparazzi of yesteryear have been replaced by anyone with a working cell phone and camera. Law enforcement released photos of superstar musician Prince’s last known healthy moments before falling fatally ill, as reported by TMZ.

So, it’s not a lost point that people want to blame the media for being the bearer of bad news.

What Journalism Is and Isn’t

It bears watching how long law enforcement and public sentiment stay married as unlikely bedfellows in this instance.  Emotions are raw, making TMZ, owned by Warner Brothers, an easy target.

As one of the largest and most successful purveyors of “checkbook journalism”, TMZ, isn’t free of criticism.

No reputable news agency will admit to paying for stories. Those that do are admonished and labeled tabloids or gossip rags.  It is unknown how much TMZ pays and if it goes so far as to pay corrupt public servants receiving taxpayer dollars to act as snitches for sale.

Getting to the story first is one of the last badges of honor those working in the industry has remaining.

TMZ, which debuted in 2005, has quickly and rightfully earned its place high upon the pantheon for getting celebrity scoops. It gained notoriety with the actor Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest and earned Newsweek’s “Breakout Blog of 2007.” By 2009, it earned its place in pop history and media bonafides by being the first to report the death of global superstar Michael Jackson.

Getting the news fast and accurate is what most outlets strive to do. Most of what gets to the masses from law enforce through a public information officer (PIO) has been scrubbed to remove any chances to taint the criminal justice process.

Media does not have the same obligation as law enforcement officers.

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Screengrab Twitter @TMZ

Money most assuredly corrupts most things that it touches. If paying for a story casts doubt in the mind of the public of people’s motives for selling it, or evokes suspicion about the accuracy or authenticity of the information, that’s sound enough reasons to not do it.

In the case of TMZ, that doesn’t seem not to be the issue with its highly publicized and one the money scoops. It has avoided being duped with a forged document or a fooled by a tampered video.

Timing in the news business has always been of the essence.

From the other side of the lens, celebrities themselves have been part of greasing the wheel of exploitation and aiding the race of media giants to get the story first. Reportedly the photos of the twin babies of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt was sold in 2008 to People Magazine for $14 million. The famous couple has not confirmed that amount, but did disclose that their photos from their daughter Shiloh two year prior was sold for a $2 million donation to charity.

In a New Yorker interview, TMZ’s managing editor Harvey Levin said nominal amounts are paid to sources for tips. Money is handed out for a list of clients for a limo service, photographs, and reportedly $250,000 for the elevator video of Solange Knowles altercation with JayZ in an elevator with Beyonce (TMZ has said it paid $5,000).

Policing the Free Press

The LA Sheriff’s department is riled up in wake of this tragedy because a news agency did not bow down and wait for them as the last and authoritative word in reporting the facts. TMZ had other reliable sources.

A nation’s hero died.

TMZ did what any responsible corporate outlet would do. It  kept to it’s business plan.  It answered to Warner Brothers’ stockholders. It scooped the mainstream outlets. TMZ bypassed the authorities who sanitize and eek out information on the justice system’s timetable. We all should expect blowback.

I’ve been thinking about my RT last night (see below), mere hours after the story broke that family members learned of a loved ones’ death via a news outlet instead of law enforcement authorities.Screenshot (3361)


We should applaud TMZ for not simply becoming an amplifier for government agencies repeating sanitized versions for the masses.  Too many times in my hometown of Baltimore, reporters rely only on law enforcement. Entire stories are single sourced, ie “police say” and through only one “authorized” channel.

More corporate media types should work to cultivate independent and reliable sources outside of the public relations offices of law enforcement.

A free and unencumbered press is essential to a working democracy.

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