From Ray Rice to Donald Sterling, TMZ keeps getting very big sports stories

Sure they pay, but they also go where too many tame sports reporters don't

May 02, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

With Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice back in the news and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling all over it this week, I have to revisit this post I wrote on TMZ in February, when the Rice-allegedly-knocks-his-then-fiancee-unconscious story first broke.

As I say in the piece, for all its journalistic sins, I love the way TMZ refuses to let itself be rolled over by the great hype machines of professional sports.

Let the less enterprising and easily intimidated homers in the press corps take their talking points from the home team publicists; TMZ gets video and audio as it did with Rice and Sterling that shows us who some of these athletes and owners are -- beyond the glowing press releases of their agents and team publicists.

Here's the piece I wrote about the valuable role TMZ has come to play in American media:

Five years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about the tabloid website TMZ. It sometimes paid for news, and that put it outside the realm of trustworthy journalism. End of story.

But last week, with TMZ posting video of Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his apparently unconscious fiancee off an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, I realized my attitude has been changing. Or maybe, as President Barack Obama says of his view on same-sex marriage, I should say it's evolved.

Given the tremendous disconnect between the Ray Rice on that video, who is shown pushing Janay Palmer around the floor like a slab of meat, and the Ray Rice celebrated by the NFL and much of sports media as a model player and citizen, I have to acknowledge that I am grateful to TMZ for the offstage look it offered in a video confirmed by Rice's lawyer as authentic but incomplete.

I am also grateful, I realized, for the offstage look TMZ offered in September of former Ravens offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Jacoby Jones, a woman named Sweet Pea and a party bus event in Washington that wound up with Jones being injured and police being called in. The scene TMZ described in its account of the event was considerably at odds with coach John Harbaugh's version early in the season of how in control and focused the Ravens were.

And, thinking back through the last few years, I have also decided I am most grateful to TMZ for revealing the anti-Semitic words of Mel Gibson and the racist rant of Michael Richards. I was also impressed with the website's reporting on the death of Michael Jackson.

The question, however, remains: Is TMZ doing good work that deserves some of my respect and gratitude? Or are my standards getting lower? Maybe tabloid online operations like have lowered journalistic standards in general, and my evolving attitude is mostly a reflection of my acceptance of such decline.

There's no doubt that journalistic standards are being challenged by the epic changes in technology, lifestyle and media business models. Does paying for video and sometimes being dead wrong even matter any more?

TMZ acknowledges that it sometimes pays for video but declined Friday to say whether it paid for the footage posted on Rice last week.

Evan Rosenblum, executive producer for TMZ and TMZ Sports, says there are strict standards of verification for anything the site publishes.

“We consider ourselves a very serious news operation,” he said. “And we vet stories thoroughly and seriously. Our reputation as reputable journalists is the most important thing.”

Rosenblum said he believes TMZ Sports, which has its own section within the TMZ site, got the video because it worked the Rice story harder than anyone else.

“Ever since the news broke that Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City, we've been on top of the story. Clearly, Ray Rice is a huge star, and this is a shocking incident,” he said.

“We were trying to reach every single person connected to this thing, and you know how it goes in news some times: You talk to one person, who gets you to another person, and another person. That's kind of how this situation happened with this video — we ended up getting in touch with somebody who had some footage.”

Once Rosenblum had the video, he said, he called Rice's attorney, Michael Diamondstein, and “had a thorough conversation, out of fairness giving them a chance to tell their side of the story.”

While there have been reports saying there is yet-to-be-published video showing Rice hitting his fiancee and knocking her out, as charged in the court summons, Rosenblum said TMZ is not the source.

“If that exists, we have not seen it,” he said of such video.

“The fact of the matter is we don't know for sure what happened in that elevator before the doors opened,” Rosenblum added. “ We're all trying to figure that out.”

Media critics, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how they feel about TMZ and the power it wields these days.

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