In Defense of, Believe It or Not, TMZ

Regarding the Ray Rice saga, TMZ not only forced the NFL's hand, it put domestic violence back in the spotlight, where it should be.

TMZ goes too far. 

We’re going to let that sentence stand on its own because it should. Because it’s correct. TMZ goes too far. All the time. Much, much too far. 

Be it hassling Kanye West in an airport. Or constantly badgering NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers for not holding up his end of a bet that was clearly made in good fun. Or putting together photo galleries showcasing how actresses have aged over the years. Or making snarky comments about those who find its journalistic practices intrusive and rude and unethical (because they are). Or wrongly pronouncing the imminent death of a rapper in a rush to get the story first. Or regularly poking fun at and chastising and dismissing and critiquing the very people who help make the whole enterprise work in the first place: celebrities. 

TMZ goes too far. This much, nobody, not even TMZ itself, could dispute. 

That’s why someone created an entire Facebook page titled, “I hate TMZ” (it currently sits at 457 likes).  

That’s why on the video game website IGN, someone started a thread on its message board by wondering, “Does anyone here hate TMZ as much as I do?”

That’s why the following answer was posted on Reddit a couple months ago once someone posed the question, “Why do people hate TMZ?”:

The hate for the website stems from the fact that they are shitty journalists and invasive paparazzi. They aggressively stalk celebrities (to the point where many feel it is dangerous or creepy), pay for stories and sources, have knowingly purchased items stolen from film and TV sets, or printed outright lies (for example, they once purported they had a picture of John F. Kennedy philandering during his Presidency, when it turns out the subject of the photo wasn’t JFK and the photo was taken several years after his death). They have had some really interesting scoops over the years, but their tactics kind of gross people out. (“Why do people hate TMZ?”)

I was sitting in a newsroom in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, of all places, on 25 June 2009, when a colleague told me that Michael Jackson was dead. I searched CNN, NBC, FOX, and because I was actually in a newsroom, the Associated Press’s wire service. I refused to believe that Michael Jackson was dead until finally, what felt like light-years later, CNN confirmed the story. 

“Boy, TMZ really does always get it right, don’t they?” I remember asking the reporter. Well, it doesn’t always get it right, but I wasn’t too far off the mark. Sure, TMZ misses the target sometimes. It offends people all the time. But more often than not, it’s the first “news outlet” with the actual news, albeit celebrity news. And more often than not, its the first “news outlet” with the correct information. Just ask Mel Gibson. Or Donald Sterling. Or Justin Bieber. Or Jameis Winston. Or shoot, Chicago’s Northern Trust Bank.

However, it wasn’t until earlier this month, nearly a decade after the site launched, that TMZ gained a modicum of respect from the general public.

Here’s what happened: Former NFL running back Ray Rice had been suspended two games due to a domestic violence incident in an Atlantic City elevator that left his then-fiancé (now wife) knocked out. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell received a lot of criticism for the light punishment (Rice had to sit down for two games after punching a woman, while Cleveland’s Josh Gordon was suspended for the entire season for getting high one too many times), and eventually, the most popular American sports league’s leader publicly admitted that both he and his league screwed up the Ray Rice punishment. 

But then on Monday, 9 September 2014, TMZ did something the NFL apparently didn’t want to do: it obtained the security footage from the elevator ride in question. In typical TMZ fashion, it published the video on its website. The video, which is unspeakably disturbing, shows the running back punching his fiancé in the face. Both the league and the team for which Rice used to play, the Baltimore Ravens, said they had not seen the tape before TMZ got its hands on it. It was a matter of hours before Rice was suspended indefinitely from the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract. 

Almost instantly, the Twitters and the Facebooks and the Instagrams and the Tumblrs reacted as such: The punishment for Rice wasn’t increased because of what he did; the punishment for Rice was increased because TMZ showed everybody what he did. Without the celebrity-obsessed website’s venture into the world of sports (aptly titled TMZ Sports), Rice would be suiting up for the Baltimore Ravens in a week and this entire incident would be swept under the rug.

We can criticize TMZ all we want for being inappropriate and we wouldn’t be wrong. By no means am I defending its approach toward human interaction, and it should most certainly be noted that most of the snippets of video it has of hounding celebrities in airports and restaurants are so cringe-worthy that I can’t even click on them. As an entity, the paparazzi have always disgusted me.

But for as highly contested and universally decried as TMZ’s reporting practices are — the paying for news tips, the lack of tact, the air of ego that surrounds everything its people does — rarely do we hear anyone focus on either of these two things: 1) The amount of good (gasp) its work can lead to and 2) The role that the current climate of popular culture plays in the approach that TMZ takes while tracking down its stories. 

Is celebrity reporter Harvey Levin and his merry band of megalomaniacs complicit in the nosedive that celebrity reporting has become? Of course. But are not such reporters also a product of the public’s obsession with celebrities and their private lives?

It’s a simple supply-and-demand formula: What do people want? I’m not saying TMZ didn’t play a major role in starting the fire that is invasive and outrageous celebrity reporting; I’m just saying it hasn’t been the only thing throwing kerosene on that flame. 

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what intentions may have been behind the release of that elevator footage; rather, the most important aspect of this story is that it was released at all. This story re-ignited the urgent matter of domestic violence in the world of sports.

With hashtags like #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft among the most-typed things Twitter saw the week the video was published on TMZ — and with an endless deluge of essays and columns and sports-television talking heads who all weighed in on the matter in some form or another — it’s clear that the ordeal struck a nerve. From Safe Horizon, an organization dedicated to battling domestic violence:

1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime.

Women experience more than 4 million physical assaults and rapes because of their partners, and men are victims of nearly 3 million physical assaults.

Women ages 20 to 24 are at greatest risk of becoming victims of domestic violence.

Every year, 1 in 3 women who is a victim of homicide is murdered by her current or former partner. (“Domestic Violence Statistics & Facts”, by Staff, Safe Horizon)

TMZ, love it or hate it, had the good sense to hold a spoiled and rich athlete accountable. The NFL — a male-dominated, testosterone-fueled business that caters to a thirst for violence anyway — had no apparent intention of doing so. For that, TMZ can whine about Kanye West all it wants. For that, we should be reminded of how crucial journalism (ahem) can be when it comes to upholding justice.

“It is impossible to separate the impact of TMZ’s Rice scoop from the way it was delivered — via a vérité video taken inside a casino elevator,” Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times, wrote on 9 September, “It was, you could say, the opposite of gossip; it was powerful, verified proof of Rice’s brutal behavior.” (“Celebrity Gossip Website Extends Its Reach With Scoops on Stars From a Different Field”)

Beyond the mere immediate affects and obvious conclusions that we’ve all drawn from the Rice saga, there’s still one thing left to wonder: Would that powerful proof be verified if TMZ had failed, in this case, to go too far? 

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Above image, Photographers on object, from Shutterstock.com.

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