To almost no one's surprise, the first media outlet to break the shocking news about Prince’s death on Thursday was TMZ.com, the gossip website that has landed numerous celebrity-related scoops.
Yet even though TMZ had the story before anyone else – it posted the news around 11:50 a.m. CT – other news organizations delayed reporting it.
It wasn’t until the Associated Press confirmed the musician’s death 17 minutes later that outlets around the world, including The Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian and BBC, jumped in, posting brief alerts citing AP’s dispatch from Chanhassen, Minnesota.
The delayed reaction illustrates a paradox about TMZ: Though it has been reliable on many major stories, mainstream news sources are reluctant to rely on its say-so alone. The news, in effect, doesn't become news until another source matches TMZ's reporting.
Admittedly, AP’s initial report about Prince had a key advantage over TMZ’s story: The AP bulletin cited a source, Prince’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, who confirmed the singer’s death.
TMZ’s “exclusive” referred to “multiple sources” but none by name.
News organizations, and perhaps readers, too, accord higher credibility to information that is directly attributed to a named individual.
TMZ’s reporting is generally treated with wariness despite its track record, said Sharon Waxman, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Wrap, a site that reports on the entertainment industry.
“It’s definitely a discussion in the newsroom as to whether to blast out something based on TMZ,” she said, but added, “I think TMZ has earned the right to be a single citable source on breaking news.”
The Wrap, however, waited until AP’s dispatch moved to post the news about Prince on Thursday, a decision made by Waxman’s deputies, who were running the newsroom at the time.
Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter, said she was comfortable with the delay, even though it may have enabled competitors to beat her site to the news by a few minutes.
“The discussion we’ve had about TMZ is that they're right about 90 percent of the time,” she said. “We'd prefer 99 percent-plus, if we can’t break the news ourselves.”
The doubts about TMZ stem principally from its tabloid nature and its admitted practice of paying sources for information – something considered a breach of traditional newsroom ethics.
As documented recently by the New Yorker magazine, TMZ pays cash to a network of tipsters, from celebrity limousine drivers to airline employees to coroners and cops.
This army of “stool pigeons” makes the website and its syndicated TV program “an intelligence agency as much as a news organization,” according to the magazine.
Some of TMZ’s biggest scoops – security camera footage of football star Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee in 2014, police records of Mel Gibson’s drunk-driving arrest and anti-Semitic rant in 2006, the death of Michael Jackson in 2009 – came from sources TMZ paid five-figure fees to disclose sensitive and even legally protected details.
In 2013, it reported that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling had made racists remarks in a phone call to his mistress. (The ensuing firestorm forced the NBA to pressure Sterling into selling his team.)
Despite all that, Waxman remains cautious: “When they report something, it makes me think they’re probably right, but it might be premature or incomplete. Maybe someone had a heart attack, but, no, he didn’t die. That they had much of the story but not all of the story.”
TMZ rarely reveals its sourcing, paid or otherwise, making the veracity of what it reports more opaque.
That doesn't make the information wrong, but it does make it somewhat suspect to journalists who question whether a news organization can maintain an arm’s-length relationship with sources it is paying. By entering into a business relationship with them, journalists worry that a news organization could favor their information at the expense of fairness to other parties involved in a story.
TMZ’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
But the site’s founder, lawyer and journalist Harvey Levin, has previously dismissed such concerns, saying that many celebrity-oriented publications pay for information and that a piece of video or a phone recording supplied by a paid source is no less truthful than a recording leaked by someone who wasn’t paid.
What’s more, TMZ hasn’t always been accurate.
In 2009, it published a photograph, which it said was taken in the mid-1950s, that supposedly showed John F. Kennedy cavorting on a yacht with four topless women.
“Had the photo surfaced when John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, it could have torpedoed his run, and changed world history,” the site said.
The story got widespread attention – until later the same day when an investigative website, the Smoking Gun, revealed that the photo was actually published by Playboy magazine in 1967 as part of a photo shoot entitled “Playboy's Charter Yacht Party: How to Have a Ball on the Briny with an Able-Bodies Complement of Ship's Belles.” TMZ backed off its claims.
“I just don't think people are at a place where they perceive TMZ as a totally legit news operation,” said Kim Masters, a veteran Hollywood journalist and editor-at-large for the Hollywood Reporter. “There's certainly a perception that they pay for stories, and that’s still not an accepted practice in journalism.”
In addition to not naming its sources, TMZ’s stories don't carry bylines, making it difficult to assess the reliability and track record of its journalists, said Masters, who also has reported for The Post.
“Aside from Harvey Levin, I don’t know a specific individual who reports for TMZ,” she said.
She described many of the site’s stories as “the most bottom-feeding kind of gossip. ... They've had a lot of success pursuing that, but it does not inspire anyone to say, ‘Let’s pick this up.’ The bottom line is, they're pretty trashy.”
In other words, if TMZ reports it, take a look, but proceed with caution.