Social Studies: Is TMZ morally bankrupt or a legitimate news source?

When I heard that the New Yorker, the high brow magazine (which I read) was working on a story about TMZ, the low brow website (which I also read), and their “unorthodox reporting tactics,” I got excited. When I found out that investigative reporter Nicholas Schmidle, who penned this 2011 piece called Getting Bin Laden, was assigned to the task, I may have squealed. 

This could be good, really good. 

And it is: the magazine recently posted the 10,000-word profile on the celebrity gossip site and its creator, lawyer Harvey Levin, online, for free. I don’t think you’ll regret reading it

Levin has said before that TMZ has never hacked phones and while they’re happy to buy tips, video content and photographs from any source, they refuse to pay for interviews. The New Yorker story confirms what we already knew. But what it does reveal—at least to me—is that their sources aren’t who you might expect: think the LAPD, court house staff, airline employees, celebrity handlers and PR reps. 

But how “unorthodox” is TMZ? Schmidle touches on the fact that “scandal has been chronicled for millennia” and that Hollywood has a long history of gossip columnists writing for publications that could make or break a celebrity’s career: “In 1905, the section’s editor [of Town Topics] attempted to blackmail Emily Post’s husband after learning of his infidelity,” for example. “In the nineteen-fifties, Confidential gained access to the head of Columbia Studios by leveraging tapes of Rock Hudson that referred to his homosexuality.”

But today, venerated news outlets, like the New York Times, don’t pay for information. If they did, think about the incentive that’s created to falsify information for money: “The Society of Professional Journalists condemns the practice of paying sources, saying that it ‘threatens to corrupt journalism,’” writes Schmidle. 

But Levin, who refused to speak to the New Yorker about the story, has always been unapologetic. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” Levin told Fox News’ Media Buzz. “The video is still the video. So who cares whether you pay money for it?”

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And consider this: “Currently, TMZ has three reporters stationed full-time at the [Los Angeles County Municipal Court],” Schidle says, and “the Los Angeles Times has one court reporter.” 

In other words, TMZ hustles. Rarely do they get it wrong. Their reporters know the ins and outs of digging for a story using the courts just as well, arguably, as a Times reporter. The only difference is that their digging for decidedly different things. (Okay and yes, the money part.)

Still, what’s interesting, maybe even ironic, is that venerated news outlets will pick up exclusive stories from TMZ, including Mel Gibson’s DUI, Michael Jackson’s death, the Ray Rice casino elevator video, and Solange and Jay Z hotel elevator. They’re not directly paying the sources that provided TMZ with the exclusive news, but they’re sharing that news. Ethics become blurred, if you ask me. 

Consider this, too: Jezebel paid $10,000 for un-retouched photos from a Redbook cover shoot to make a point about how womens’ magazine create this false perception of beauty. Because the message is “better” does that make the act any less immoral?

Is it even immoral to begin with? I don’t know. But I do think this is part of a much larger conversation about what constitutes as news, what news we are consuming the most of, and our hunger for gossip. 

What are your thoughts? Is it ethical to pay for scoops? Do you agree with Levin? The information is still out there, so why not pay for it, as long as its not falsified. Is there greater value with getting that information out there regardless of the way in which it is obtained? (Think about Ray Rice, for example: after TMZ published the video of him punching his fiancĂ©, the NFL has suspended him indefinitely.) And what do you make of the hundreds of “legitimate” media outlets who are on stand by to share whatever story TMZ digs up next? 
 
 
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