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.