Michael Jackson’s death changed the game.
That was the day those of us working in the traditional media – sorry, the liberal, elite media – got our asses handed to us by TMZ.
TMZ. The site full of “reporters” armed with digital cameras shoving them in every celebrity’s face in Hollywood, New York and points around the world. The people looking for every seedy detail of the lives of celebrities and pseudo-celebrity they can.
But on that day, everyone was forced to look at the alerts that said “TMZ.com is reporting that Michael Jackson died.” Which brought nervous titters from some of my colleagues. Do we want to trust TMZ? How long do we wait for official confirmation from another source?
Sure, they ended up being right. But at what cost to the rest of us? The anonymous source -- once a well-guarded, use-only-in-extreme-cases right amongst the media -- was OK in the announcement of the death of one of the world’s most famous people. And if it was OK in that case, well, how was it not going to be OK in even more cases – especially with the Internet and the proliferation of bloggers and writers who were reporting the “news” on a minute-by-minute basis.
“Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
-- Edward R. Murrow, to the Radio Television Digital News Association in 1958 (also seen in “Good Night, And Good Luck”)
I think about the bloggers and writers and reporters out there, many of them, like me, having left traditional newsrooms (by force or otherwise). Some of them still carry themselves as journalists, remaining steeped in the ethics we have been taught through the years. Others, well…
While talking about the subject recently, I brought up as example the amount of blogs out there dedicated to the Los Angeles Kings. There are at least six that I visit on a daily basis, and many others that I visit on regular occasions. They vary from reliable -- run by people who are reporters (including one who left his newspaper to become employed by the Kings) – to people who deal with strictly their opinion, aggregating information from other sources to others who’s main thrust is to only report rumors and conjecture (often wrong) that they heard from some “well-placed source.”
But without reading each day, how do you know which to trust? Obviously, the guy who’s employed by the Kings is trusted. And the guy who’s a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association must be good. But what about the reporter who blogs as “The Mayor?” (Trusted, by the way). Or under the pseudonym of “Quisp?” (He’s one of the opinion/aggregators, and pretty good at it, too.)
But it’s when we get into the blogs out there are written by people who just want to spread rumors -- or have an ax to grind -- that we, as a society, are going to run into trouble.
Is taking the word of one of these blogs – written by someone using a pseudonym to protect him or herself from retribution – good enough to be reported on as fact? Or even good enough to be something that you quote just to find a dissenting opinion when writing about something controversial?
“We run stupid headlines because we think they're funny. We run maimings on the front page because we got good art. And I spend three weeks bitching about my car because it sells papers. But at least it's the truth. As far as I can remember we never ever, ever knowingly got a story wrong, until tonight.”
-- Michael McDougal (Randy Quaid) in “The Paper”
The truth is all we have going for us as journalists.
Not the truth as someone sees it. Not what someone heard from someone who heard from someone else. Not someone’s comment on Facebook. Not a random Twitter posting.
Those tools weren’t available to us back in the dark ages – you know, the 1990s. We had to check these things out.
I had a source who was involved with youth sports who would come to me with stories that she thought I should do. About the “sausage-making” that goes on in youth sports leagues. And I’d always tell her, sure, we’ll talk about it later, knowing that I wouldn’t. Because there was going to be no way I’d be able to corroborate anything she was going to tell me, and there’d be no way it’d ever make print.
Now, that person (and many like her) can go onto any number of platforms and vent and people can take it as fact. And report it if they’re so inclined. All they have to do is say is that there’s problems going on in such-and-such league and this is what one parent had to say about it (on a blog, even) and that’s a story to the TMZ generation. No checking of facts. No getting the other side. No one finding out if the reason this parent is complaining is just to get their kid more playing time.
In the TMZ generation, it’s up to you to find out what’s truth, what’s half-truth and what’s .01 percent truth. (And I use TMZ as a generic here because it’s an easy mark – there are tons of other outlets out there that would love to be TMZ because of the number of clicks they get).
No one’s saying that there’s no room out there for gossip and celebrity news mills. I just worry about their effect on the business of news and truth. Are we so far gone that this is what passes for truth these days? Is all hype and no substance – no context – OK with you?
I mean, can you imagine what would have happened if the world’s media had trusted TMZ on that June 2009 day and reported Michael Jackson had died without any official confirmation – only to have Jackson walk out of the hospital?
I’ll close now. Before I go, one last quote from a newspaper-based movie:
“If you're gonna do it, do it right. If you're gonna hype it, hype it with the facts. I don't mind what you did. I mind the way you did it.”
-- Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) in “All the President’s Men”