Sour Grapes: TMZ and the Michael Jackson Scoop of the Decade

Thirty-mile zone

Thirty-mile zone

After Hollywood gossip Web site TMZ first broke news of Michael Jackson’s death last week (beating the LA Times by about an hour), there’s been lots of analysis and criticism and hand-wringing about what this says about new media versus the traditional mainstream press.

Min Online rounds up recent thought on the matter:

This weekend the L.A. Times mused that the Jackson death would be a “turning point for TMZ” in getting more journalistic credibility. The New York Times took it as an occasion to give back-handed credit to the “carnivorous celebrity news Web site” for being ahead of the story but perhaps practicing questionable tactics in getting the scoop. Likewise, ABCNews frames this story as a debate over tabloid tactics. One British news organization went to the trouble of assembling a timeline and other reporting to deduce that TMZ had “guessed” Jackson’s death.

And the battle is joined. TechCrunch is quick to argue that the mainstream offline press is having a defensive reaction to being scooped.

Defensive reaction? Sour grapes is more like it. This post, by the LA Times Comments blog, asks, “What if TMZ had been wrong about Michael Jackson?” and “Have our standards for accountability dissolved?” Both valid questions, albeit undercut by cheap shots at TMZ, Drudge Report and — heck, why not? — Fox News.

But more interesting are the comments to the post, which mostly consist of readers slamming the LA Times — a daily newspaper — for getting beat by an Internet upstart then whining about it.

Some samples:

“They were not wrong. You were late and they got the story. Print newspapers are out of date.”

“The bottom line is, they were right. Somebody who knew the facts apparently told them. They have a better source in this case than you do. Get over it. Their whole world is celeb stalking. Are you surprised they had the real scoop before ‘real’ news outlets?”

“L.A. Times….and all the rest of the dying media. Just face the fact, your time has come and gone. No longer do you corner the market on breaking news. No longer do we clamor for a newsboy standing on a street corner hollering ‘Extra, Extra! Read all about it!’

“Newspapers are a dinosaur. They are slowly going extinct and howl at the meteor that is the internet as it plummets toward the earth bringing with it their extinction. The dinosaurs were not fast enough, or smart enough, to survive the aftermath. …”

So what are the lessons for the mainstream press and this new generation of news organizations on the Web? Let’s talk it over after the jump.

Drudge siren

Drudge siren

Via Twitter via Drudge via TMZ

Traveling in Minneapolis, I caught an alert about Jackson going to the hospital on Twitter. My first instinct was then to go to Drudge, which soon linked to TMZ’s report that Jackson died. And that’s where I first saw confirmation: TMZ via Drudge.

Somewhere in there, I remembered to turn on CNN and MSNBC, which didn’t even mention TMZ’s death report on-air until a source, speaking to one of its anchors by phone, brought it up. It was an awkward moment for the anchor, who seemed to know about the report but didn’t wish to address it.

But I still waited for a “mainstream” news organization to call Jackson’s death. At that point, it seemed more of a formality than anything. The mainstream had clearly been beaten because, like the above commenter noted, TMZ’s “whole world is celeb stalking” — this is its bread and butter, what it excels at. There seemed little likelihood to me that TMZ would risk blowing what turned out to be its biggest story ever.


I think there are real ethical questions here. TMZ admits to paying for some of the information it receives, a practice the mainstream press avoids (although some mainstream TV newsmagazines have been known to skirt the rules) and that could compromise the integrity of reporting.

But what old media should be concerned about is why people turned to TMZ, Drudge and the Internet, which infamously strained under the weight of so much traffic that day, in the first place.

To me, it’s easy. First, the Internet has become the place for breaking news. A whole generation of readers, particularly those who lived through 9/11, are conditioned now to go online when a major news event happens. An army of e-mail, text and now Twitter and social media alerts help drive them there.

Niche Wins

Second, the Internet is ideal for niche sites like TMZ to operate, deliver news efficiently on a specific topic, cultivate an audience intensely interested in that topic, and thrive because of it. Bascially, I trusted TMZ on the Jackson news because TMZ lives and dies to break big celebrity news. And celebrity news gets no bigger than the death of Michael Jackson.

Thursday was TMZ’s Super Bowl, and it delivered big-time, leading the coverage on major aspects of the story that some press wouldn’t address until a day or two later.

There’s a separate discussion to be had on reporting standards — I agree. But the major lesson to me is the power of (often small) niche Web sites to be the authority when big news breaks on their watch. The mainstream press needs to stop whining and take note


Michael Jackson may be turning point for TMZ – LA Times

TV misses out as gossip website TMZ reports Michael Jackson’s death first – LA Times

LA Times plays catch-up, gets stuff wrong – Gawker

Via some genius on Tumblr. Props.

Via some genius on Tumblr. Props.


4 Responses

  1. When Perez Hilton proclaimed that Jackson was faking, I figured Jackson was a goner.

    Seriously I put little confidence in the TMZ report because I don’t pay enough attention to celebrity news to really know or trust the site.

    When Ryan Seacrest tweeted that a source at the hospital confirmed the death that was good ’nuff for me and it was still in advance of the “mainstream”.

    Niche sites can score well in the news race, the problem is that if your interest in the niche is slight to none when major news breaks out, you don’t know whether to trust that source.

    If the news were breaking in Arkansas would those around you in Minneapolis have known how much credibility weight to assign Argenta Blog, Arkansas Business, The Arkansas Project, etc?

    There is likely always going to be a validator role for the AP, CNN, ABC, NBC, etc because with numerous sources supplying news you need some way to sort out the fill in the blank fake news template about falls in New Zealand from real news.

  2. i agree totally…i didnt believe the news until i was told by a million tv stations/ radio stations etc…its hard to believe anyone

  3. ArkStFan, Marilyn, I’ve read other pieces that seem to think those mainstream players will continue to have a place, if nothing else but to give final confirmation to news broken by others.

    But will they credit those who broke the news first? CNN reported the LA Times reports of Jackson’s death without noting the earlier TMZ report. And they also parroted the LA Times reporting — which was incorrect — about Jackson being in a coma. Oops.

    Ultimately, of course, it’s up to the news consumer to make his or her own judgments — even by sampling a variety of reporting to see what holds water and what doesn’t.

  4. I’m AOL and I was looking around on TMZ when the story very first broke and I did not doubt it. Someone is always talking, no matter where, security, hospital employees – who wouldn’t, with news like that! I like the news fast, even if it comes from the paps.

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