How the devil does business

As the content of the Supreme Court’s “responsible communication” ruling propagates, I am seeing and hearing a lot of despairing wails of “Oh, TMZ will just love this!” Well, I’m sure the folks at TMZ love it when someone complains about them—usually, one guesses, in between visits to the site. In a mere matter of months TMZ has managed to replace the poor old Enquirer as the go-to synecdoche for the irresistible evils of celebrity-stalking.

But as popular as gossipy media content is, people don’t pay much attention to how it is generated. If they did, they would never imagine that the new “responsible communication” defence, which is designed to protect careful investigative reporting in the public interest from being nitpicked to death, has much to do with the kind of machine-gun journalism that TMZ practices.

Go on, visit the TMZ home page right now. Where is most of this stuff coming from? About two-thirds of it, at a guess, is founded on police tips and privileged court documents of one sort or another—flat, libel-conscious, factual summaries of the details of arrests, real-estate sales, family-law filings, police investigations, accident reports, and the like. It’s all produced by guys hanging around courthouses and police stations, much of it is in the public domain, and very little of it would be jeopardized by any version of defamation law, or at least any version in which truth and qualified privilege were defences. (It is also rather convenient to TMZ that the deceased have no right of action in libel.)

Really, there is not even much actual copy: TMZ depends very little on stylishly salacious tittering, and very heavily on the unique streaming effect that is created by a long sequence of barebones 75-word stories about celebrity transactions and troubles. You wish your staid local broadsheet was this information-dense. And what’s the mortar that fills in these bricks, which are costly to assemble but don’t involve much defamation risk? Occasionally, it consists of spoonfed stories from PR people trying to promote their clients’ own interests. Who was TMZ’s source for the details of Dr. Conrad Murray’s TV deal? Dr. Conrad Murray. Who broke the big news about Steve Tyler going into rehab? Why, it was Steve Tyler.

Throw in the occasional paparazzi photo, TV or radio clip, and stupid contest, and you’ve built yourself a media giant without having to spend much money on lawyers (though I’m sure they have some pretty good ones on the payroll). We read TMZ, leap to the wildest and most cynical conclusions about the celebrity gods and their sordid Elysium, and blame the messenger for our own mythomania. TMZ isn’t the problem, buddy.

How the devil does business

  1. I was watching PTI last night and they were saying that tmz is going into sports gossip business sometime in new year, I believe it was. Should be interesting to see how athletes react to having their lives under the microscope like pols and hollywood-types already do.

    • If you really want to fit in, you should accuse Colby of misusing synecdoche when he really meant metonymy. You'll lose, but not before getting a few hot girls' phone numbers.

      Words. They're hawt.

  2. I'm afraid I don't understand what the despairing wailers are, er, wailing about.

    TMZ is an American outfit and my understanding was the Americans have a looser "absence of malice" libel standard.

    And I'm not just saying that 'cause I never miss their show. — That's how I know TMZ founder Harvey Levin is a LAWYER (you have to watch to the end of the credits to get the joke) and there's another producer/guy usually in the bullpen who is also a lawyer.

    My view is that TMZ has become influential because it has established a track record of being the first to break stories, e.g. Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy, and getting their hands on info other outlets haven't got, e.g. Rihanna police photo, Octomom belly shot — not because they're broadcasting defamatory, anonymous allegations. Though some of their stuff may well be in that category.

    • Not very much of it is. And while the U.S. standard for libel is higher than ours, there seems to me to be no good reason there couldn't be a TMZ Canada–either now, or before yesterday.

      • > there seems to me to be no good reason there couldn't be a TMZ Canada

        I can think of a few, but they don't have anything to do with libel.

        Who needs, or wants to know what Neil Young had for breakfast.

        Derek

    • exactly. tmz didn't just overtake the enquirer they out-reported the reporters of what were supposed to be the more 'substantive' entertainment outlets and the major networks and papers on the biggest entertainment stories of the year in their own style, that happened to facilitate consumption.

      • At least reporters everywhere now know that if they can't prove allegations made by suspicious townspeople, they can at least repeat these townspeople's allegations sure in the knowlege that another defence will have to be put to the jury.

  3. I thought TMZ rose to the top of the smelly pile because it was more often accurate. They still present the news in a rather crude manner but that's just the dressing. What's underneath is the same thing as that multi-column page that Maclean's presents pop news as.

    Anyways, in the end it's up to the individual judge as to whether the new libel defence is usable on a per-basis base.

  4. In other news, the sky will be falling in two years. Please be prepared for the rapture.

  5. We read TMZ, leap to the wildest and most cynical conclusions about the celebrity gods and their sordid Elysium, and blame the messenger for our own mythomania.

    We read TMZ? Speak for y'self…

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