December 18th, 2009
Tiger Wood’s self described “transgressions” have dominated the global news hole since the golfer’s Thanksgiving Day car crash came after tabloid magazine National Enquirer’s scathing report on his adulterous ways two days earlier. The PEW Research Center’s weekly news coverage index found Woods to be the second biggest newsmaker in the United States in the first two weeks of December, second only to President Obama. Woods has been featured in close to 2000 news articles in elite news entities worldwide in the same period.
Singapore has not been spared from the extensive coverage of the world’s number one golfer’s off-field exploits. Leading English language newspapers The Straits Times and Today have featured Woods on their front and prime pages several times since the story first broke.
Apart from introducing the world to Wood’s bevy of mistresses, the scandal has also highlighted the growing primacy of celebrity gossip sites like TMZ.com (TMZ) and Perezhilton.com in celebrity news reporting. Lacking the extensive grapevine of these websites in Hollywood, legacy media entities have been forced to take a back seat in reporting the latest celebrity scandals. Instead, they are increasingly relying on these tabloid websites and magazines for their latest leads on scandals, and in some cases cite them as sources.
The two biggest celebrity scandals of the year, the death of Michael Jackson and the current one encircling Tiger Woods, both had TMZ as the first source breaking the news. In both cases, unnamed informants tipped off TMZ and confirmed the occurrences before legacy media journalists caught a whiff of them.
Legacy media entities’ growing reliance on the tabloids and the likes of TMZ have major repercussions on existing journalistic standards and norms. While TMZ is owned by the same parent company as CNN (Time Warner), it certainly does not adhere to the professional reporting methods and editorial processes of its sister news organisation. For one, TMZ and several tabloids pay tip fees – payments made to sources in exchange for exclusive information they are privy to. The website has informants throughout West Hollywood, from hospital workers to neighbours of celebrities. There is no way to ascertain if all of TMZ’s anonymous sources have noble motives like Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, but the monetary rewards offered to them cast doubt on their credibility. Harvey Levin, managing editor of TMZ, argues that this practice of chequebook journalism is perfectly fine, juxtaposing it to American television networks paying guests large sums of money for exclusive interviews. (See his interview with CNN here)
Elite news organisations have long frowned on such practices. The BBC’s editorial guidelines for example, explicitly state, “payment of a fee will only be approved for a contribution of remarkable importance with a clear public interest”. The leaked police photograph of pop star Rihanna’s battered face after an altercation with her boyfriend hardly had any “public interest” value, but it cost TMZ $62,500 to publish it. The legality of the website’s informal network is also questionable. Apart from Rihanna’s photograph, which was meant to be used as evidence in court, the website has also published photos of death certificates, traffic summons and sheriff charge reports, in parts or otherwise. The website’s brazen disregard for privacy and the confidentiality of certain documents is particularly worrisome, along with the apparent fact that it has sources within the various public service departments.
Tabloids and celebrity news websites also put pressure on the legacy media to match their immediacy in reporting events. A substantial number of articles found in websites like TMZ.com and Perezhilton.com have a single, anonymous source cited. Content is put out much faster than in newspapers or television networks, where journalists are required to seek out alternative sources to verify information they gather.
Despite making breakthroughs in being the first to report celebrity scandals, these celebrity gossip websites also have a tendency to misinform the public as the story develops, as a result of their reporting practices. In wanting to compete with the speed at which these websites publish breaking news developments, elite media entities risk compromising on the quality and accuracy of their content.
It is highly unlikely that we will see TMZ’s journalistic practices mainstreamed into Singapore’s newspapers and television channels any time soon. For one, Americans’ voracious appetite for the intimate details of celebrities is unmatched here. In reporting celebrity scandals, the local mainstream media have been careful to quote more reliable sources like the wire agencies or other elite news sources even as they quote the new players like TMZ. Chequebook journalism and anonymous sources which are mainstays of the tabloids, have little space in our local media landscape where competition is less cutthroat.
However, the Tiger Woods coverage shows that for major international celebrity scandals, Singapore’s press is not immune to the trend of allowing pseudo-journalistic sources to set the pace of coverage. Anxious not to left behind just in case the latest juicy detail in TMZ and the tabloids happens to be true, legacy media around the world have been picking up these unverified stories enthusiastically. When this happens, ST and Today have not been able to resist, either.
In the global context, the tabloids and websites like TMZ are here to stay, along with their unconventional journalistic methods. Harvey Levin summed up the influence of the website he has managed since its inception in December 2005. “We’ve become like the Associated Press in the world we cover”, he told the New York Times in an interview. It is a sign of the rise of these media entities that when Levin visited the world acclaimed Columbia J-school earlier this year, students flocked to give him their resume. Welcome to the future of journalism.