If not for TMZ, Ray Rice would be a Raven today

How tabloid website is changing media landscape - and history

  • A video frame grab from a video obtained by TMZ Sports of Ray Rice in an altercation with his then fiance, Janay Palmer. They have since gotten married. The fight took place in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.
A video frame grab from a video obtained by TMZ Sports of Ray Rice… (TMZ, Baltimore Sun )
September 15, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

If not for TMZ, Ray Rice would still be a Raven today and back in the National Football League, having served his joke of a two-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell.

The assault on his then-fiancee in an elevator at a New Jersey casino would be largely behind him — with the public never having seen the brutality he inflicted upon her.

And the wide-ranging discussion about domestic violence that took place several nights last week at the top of network evening newscasts and all day and night on cable news channels would in all likelihood never have happened. Ditto for the deluge of words and images in newspapers and on websites and social media exploring the issue — often with insight and sensitivity.

Power of the press, huh?

Only some people, particularly in the world of legacy media, still can't bring themselves to think of TMZ and its companion site, TMZ Sports, which first broke the Rice video in February, as the press.

Memo to the head-in-the-sand gang: Get over it, grow up, quit being hypocrites and acknowledge the truth about the new media world we live in during these revolutionary times.

TMZ is the press, and, at least with its sports operation, has been breaking more and bigger stories than any of its competitors. And that includes everyone from The New York Times and the Associated Press to ESPN, which loves to boast about its investigative reporting even as it avoids discussion of its contractual relationships with leagues and performers that continually call its credibility into question.

In February, after the first video of Rice appeared, I wrote a column saying that five years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about the tabloid website. It sometimes paid for news, and that put it outside the realm of trustworthy journalism. End of story.

But seeing that first Rice video, I realized my attitude had been changing. Or maybe, as President Barack Obama says of his view on same-sex marriage, I should say it had evolved.

Either way, I decided that if I wanted to be a credible media critic, I had to start being honest about TMZ, whether I liked it or not.

I had not given TMZ its due last September for the backstage look it offered of Ravens 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.

The out-of-control scene TMZ described in its account of the event was decidedly at odds with the picture coach John Harbaugh was successfully selling to the local press of how focused the Ravens were as the season began. TMZ provided the first indication that the Ravens were not disciplined enough to even make the playoffs, let alone repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Nor had I given TMZ the credit it deserved in November when it broke the story that Florida State University Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston was under investigation by police in Tallahassee as the result of an allegation that he had sexually assaulted another student at the school.

When I talked in February to Evan Rosenblum, executive producer for TMZ and TMZ Sports, he emphasized that the sports operation was a separate entity and promised I'd see some big stories there in coming months.

He didn't disappoint. In April, TMZ Sports posted audio of then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling not just making racist comments, but extending them to the point where they offered a look inside the very mindset of racist thinking. Sterling has since been banned from the NBA for life and the team has been sold.

Beyond sports, some of TMZ's other widely known scoops involved 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 medical details involved in the death of Michael Jackson.

So, given that record, why shouldn't TMZ be praised for its journalistic enterprise? Because it paid for the Rice video, which Rosenblum acknowledged in a Sun interview last week?

Guess what? Virtually everyone in journalism today is paying for videos in one form or another. It just depends on how you define "pay."

At the major networks and news cable channels, they call it a "licensing fee." Covering everything from interviews to exclusive pictures, it's been an accepted practice for more than a decade.

The "licensing fee" for the right piece of video can be several hundred thousand dollars, such as the $215,000 ABC News confirmed paying in the Casey Anthony case in 2011. The breakdown was $200,000 to Anthony, and $15,000 to the guy who found the body of Anthony's 2-year-old daughter. (Anthony was found not guilty of murder and most other serious charges in the girl's death.)

Given the power of video to drive online traffic, and the need by legacy media outlets to grow and monetize their digital operations, there's a not a newsroom in the country that won't barter for video. And any news executive who says otherwise is either a liar or on her or his way out of a job.

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