When TMZ gets it wrong

I hate TMZ. I hate everything it stands for. I hate the idea that someone who was on U.S. television for 30 seconds has suddenly lost the right to go to the pharmacy without being harassed by some guy with a camera asking a bunch of questions. I especially hate that TV show they have (it comes on after the Colbert Report, and sometimes I’m slow at changing the channel), which seems to consist mainly of running into random celebrities on the street with a video camera and asking them how they’re doing.

I don’t blame TMZ, though. They’re filling a demand, just like all the other gossip mags. Instead, the blame rests squarely on the people who consume this content: You. If everyone was as disinterested in celebrity gossip as I am, TMZ and its ilk would have no readers, no revenue, no money to pay photographers, stalkers and other scoop-chasers.

In fact, I respect TMZ. There are few worlds as cut-throat as celebrity gossip, and that brand appeared out of nowhere to suddenly own it. It broke the Michael Jackson story, it broke the Brittany Murphy story, and a bunch of lesser-known ones as well.

Love it or hate it, when the Jackson story broke this year, everyone as frantically reloading TMZ.com looking for an update. And its record has brought it to the point where it can report something and mainstream media will re-report it, citing TMZ as their only source.

It was just a matter of time before TMZ would fall face-first into its own pile of crap. And it happened Monday morning on what it thought was a huge exclusive story: A photo of John F. Kennedy, taken before he became president, partying with some naked girls on a boat. The significance, it argued: If the photo had come out in the 1950s, it would have sunk Kennedy’s presidential campaign and probably “changed history.”

TMZ went through due diligence in authenticating the photo. It got a forensic photo expert to say that the photo showed no evidence of digital manipulation, and said other unnamed “experts” also looked at the photo and said it appeared to be authentic. The story focused heavily on the authentication process itself, partly to convince people it was legitimate, and partly to leave open the possibility that it might not be.

Early comments on the story argued about whether or not it was fake, discussing everything from shadows to 1950s fashion. Most called people who disagreed with them names, and complained that they were not experts.

Within hours, The Smoking Gun, another website that has built a reputation for itself of being thorough researchers, posted a story saying TMZ had fallen for a hoax, that the photo in question is actually from a 1967 Playboy photo spread, and that the man in the photo was an actor, not JFK.

TMZ later posted another story, saying questions had been raised about the photo’s authenticity. Later it confirmed what The Smoking Gun had said, and concluded the man in the photo was not JFK.

Soon, the mainstream media was piling on. Google News lists 766 articles, including one by the New York Times, which points out that both TMZ and The Smoking Gun are owned (through different subsidiaries) by Time Warner.

Quoted by the Times, TMZ executive producer Harvey Levin said “We’re not happy about it, but this is part of journalism.”

He’s right. Journalists get suckered like this all the time. And TMZ was right about the photo not being Photoshopped – Photoshop hadn’t been created when the photo was taken. It’s just that nobody bothered to check old issues of Playboy.

Comparisons with “Rathergate” – the Bush document scandal that got Dan Rather knocked off CBS – are apt here. Both involve documents that were authenticated but later turned out to be fakes. Both were good-faith, well-researched stories (that would probably be protected under a recent Canadian Supreme Court decision on libel), but both ultimately failed because the drive for a controversial story overpowered the need to get it right, and because a journalist interpreted an expert’s opinion that they couldn’t find anything wrong with a document as some sort of guarantee that the document must be authentic.

Still, TMZ will recover from this embarrassment. It will continue to break stories, and while they may be more cautious, or include more disclaimers, the mainstream media will keep re-reporting them.

My only major gripe with TMZ, though, is that the original story is still there, with no update, no correction, no indication at all that the story has been exposed as a hoax. I realize that failure to update old stories online is a problem in print media (Craig Silverman mentions it often), but even the most technologically-inept of publications knows that if you put up a story that turns out to have been false, you have to update it to say so.

Fix that, and my respect grows back a bit.

But no matter what, I still hate TMZ.

UPDATE (Jan. 19): Basem Boshra has similar thoughts in his Gazette column.

4 thoughts on “When TMZ gets it wrong

  1. wkh


    You wrote:
    Both involve documents that were authenticated but later turned out to be fakes.

    Not exactly fake. Just not what they were purported to be. It was after all a real picture of a real man on a real boat with real naked women looking to be having a nice time (I’d like to be there, with one of those real nice bodies). It just wasn’t JFK. Mistaken identity.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t read TMZ. Unless there’s some breaking celebrity news that I’m supposed to follow for work, or (like in this case) a story from somewhere else points to it.

  2. Fassero

    Let’s establish that TMZ is the product of our ever-increasing celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s a given. It’s pathetic. The problem is that the mainstream media has embraced it as much, if not more, than anybody else so the fact that they’re spraying their jeans with this “TMZ goofed” story is playing more like a bunch of teenage boys comparing penis sizes in a gym shower. TMZ has broken tons of stories much like the blogsphere yet the mainstream media is envious of both mediums because this was once the stuff they excelled at themselves.

    Was the Kennedy story a flop/hoax? Absolutely. That still gives TMZ a better record on story accuracy than those who now choose to slay it. The difference is the bulk of TMZ’s audience won’t care. JFK has been dead for over forty years. TMZ’s audience is more interested in which celebrity appeared at which restaurant-flavor-of-the-moment-in-LA. Heck, most of TMZ’s audience in unlikely to know that JFK was once a President.

    All in due fairness, this blunder pales in comparison’s to what happened at CBS which was far more scandalous because it was entirely aimed at smearing a present sitting President – nothing more; nothing less. Never mind that CBS spent months trying to defend it’s story when it was painfully obvious there wasn’t one whereas TMZ at least started to backtrack a few hours after they broke their story.

    And I don’t completely hate TMZ. Quite frankly, they covered the Natasha Richardson death/accident far better than even the local media here. Also, and it’s painfully obvious, they get barely an iota of their information from their own “stalking” camerapeople as much as they live off of tips from legal, medical, and political contacts who should know way better and, even worse, celebrity publicists who CRAVE for their clients to get the cheap exposure.

  3. Gilles

    Well in the realm of paparazi journalism; TMZ (in comparison to similar outlets) does a pretty good and honorable job of reporting the goings on in the celebrity world in my view. Its all relative really.


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