With the death of pop star Michael Jackson, TMZ gave the most potent demonstration yet of its ability to stir the pot of entertainment news. The gossip site once again left TV networks and other traditional media outlets scrambling in its wake, even as they attempted to distance themselves from a source widely regarded as salacious, if not disreputable.
Just after noon on Thursday, paramedics responded to a 911 call at Jackson’s Holmby Hills mansion. Less than an hour later, TMZ — the same outlet that broke Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade during a 2006 DUI arrest but that has also feasted on such fare as “upskirt” photos of stars — landed the scoop that the multiplatinum pop singer had gone into cardiac arrest. At 2:44 p.m., it beat rivals by informing the world of his death, which occurred at 2:26 p.m.
On a day already consumed by the death of ’70s TV star Farrah Fawcett, Jackson’s death sent TMZ into overdrive. Yet the tabloid sensibilities of the site, which is owned and operated by divisions of Time Warner, and its accompanying syndicated TV show apparently made rivals queasy. Many outlets around the world instead credited the news to the Los Angeles Times, which bannered Jackson’s death on its website at 2:51 p.m.
By 4 p.m., a huge crowd had gathered outside UCLA Medical Center, and celebrities and fans alike were submitting so many messages mourning his death on Twitter that the service intermittently crashed. CNN was still relying on “reports” from other media and telling viewers it could not independently verify the death. Only when the coroner’s office confirmed Jackson’s death did CNN relay it as outright fact to viewers, at 4:25 p.m.
The irony is that CNN is, like TMZ, owned by Time Warner. But Fox News and MSNBC also struggled with the sourcing issue.
If the lack of widespread credit bothered Harvey Levin, the managing editor of TMZ, he wasn’t admitting it.
“That’s typical,” Levin said during a phone interview when asked about rivals’ hesitation to credit the site. “No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That’s how competitors handle it. There’s no issue about our credibility.
“Today I made 100 phone calls, and everyone else made 100 calls,” Levin said of his staff. “Everyone blanketed the city. . . . We were getting calls from everyone under the sun, established news operations, asking, ‘Are you sure?’ That’s such an odd question. We would not have published it if it were not true.”
Asked about its Jackson coverage, CNN said: “Given the nature of this story we exercised caution.” Nigel Pritchard, a CNN spokesman, declined to elaborate.
On Twitter, the volume of Jackson-related messages — up to 5,000 per minute at its peak — was so high that some users reported log-in trouble.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone acknowledged the performance lag. “We saw an instant doubling of tweets per second the moment the story broke,” Stone wrote in an e-mail. “This particular news about the passing of such a global icon is the biggest jump in tweets per second since the U.S. presidential election.”
Maybe now they’ll be taken seriously (almost).