26 Jun 2009 8:46 am   //   Filed under: Media

The real reason nobody trusts TMZ.com

It’s time for another round of Guess the Anonymous Source!

If you were near a computer, or in an office, yesterday around 5:45 p.m. ET, you knew Michael Jackson had died. You knew this because TMZ.com reported it (credited anonymously) and word spread quickly. It took the newspapers, wires, TV networks, and other trusted legacy news sources another 30 minutes to an hour to report Jackon’s death themselves. (Today the Associated Press has a good tabulation of the media timeline.)

News sources often cite one another when breaking news is going on—CNN cited The Los Angeles Times with its initial reports of Jackson’s death. So why won’t anyone cite TMZ.com? Is it because mainstream news outlets hate getting scooped by blogs?

No. It’s because TMZ.com is widely thought to pay for tips. It’s hard to confirm this, since most of the people who accuse TMZ of this practice are competitors—and some of them pay sources too. But every time TMZ publishes a leaked police report nobody else has, suspicion deepens.

Is paying sources so wrong? Network TV offers its guests lavish perks to appear on news shows. Magazines pay celebrities large sums for exclusive photos. And there’s so much pressure to have a competitive edge. But in cases of breaking news, most journalists feel you’re supposed to get your information through hard work and connections, not checkbook journalism. Paying for information upsets the source-journalist dynamic in a dangerous way. Can you really trust a source who’s willing to sell out like that? And oh yes, it costs money, which nobody has right now.

Among mainstream journalists, offering cash for news tips is considered so toxic that even the whiff of possibility that it’s happening makes the entire site contaminated. I believe that’s the real reason CNN would credit a Los Angeles Times report about Michael Jackson dying, but not a similar report from TMZ.

Blogs have always been willing to flaunt traditional journalism ethics, and it’s good to have some mayhem in the mix. But until TMZ, no one was worried that blogs would start bribing emergency workers for information. That would be ridiculous! Blogs didn’t have any money! But TMZ does. It’s owned by AOL, which is currently being spun off from Time Warner (which also owns People and CNN, go figure). It’s probably AOL’s most valuable property.