TMZ — perhaps one of the most enjoyable, well-written and best reported celebrity news/gossip sites on the web — has just gotten “punked” in a media event that shows the dangers of 21st century 24/7 media competition. Print media (in this race with its arms and legs tied, a broken back and a hernia), new media, blogs, websites, TV, cable — are all now trying to get reader/viewer attention so they can garner decent news consumer numbers. There’s a clamor to get something first, or to respond quickly and strongly to get attention.
And so TMZ fell victim to a hoax, running a yellowed crumpled photo with an original post that talked about how forensic examination seemed to prove it was for real. The headline called it the photo that “could have changed history.” And you can see by the photo above why: it seemingly showed John F. Kennedy Jr, supposedly when he was Senator, on a boat with naked women.
After touting it on the web, and having the story picked up by all and sundry in the new and old media, TMZ ran this correction (which does not have a link to its original post).
I don’t usually write in first person, but in this instance it’s required:
Years ago I had a journalism prof tell me: “Beware of that ‘scoop.’ If someone says “I have a story that’ll bust this town wide open!!!’ either run the other way or check it out three or four times.”
Years later, in Oceanside California, I covered the City Council for the San Diego Union and an activist called me to say she was having a representative of the “Democratic party” to tell us some things that would “bust this town wide open!” about the city and City Council. This set off two warnings flags: 1)she used that phrase and 2)the way she described the party didn’t sound like it was the Democratic party. I later found out it was not the Democratic party but activists tied to Lyndon LaRouche (a longtime independent party activist who has been accused of being anti-semitic, and a ‘truther” on 911 who these days compares Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler as his Wikipedia bio notes). I shared with her my findings and she angrily canceled the meeting. (So the town wasn’t bust wide open).
I saw this story earlier today and didn’t run anything on it for two reasons. For one thing, I am largely offline for the next few days due to nonblog obligations. Secondly, I used a rule I sometimes use (not always): I decided to wait and see how the story is covered first in the mainstream media and to leave enough time to see if this was verified or not. Of course, my post wouldn’t have bust blogtopia (skippy invented that word) wide open since TMZ had that story, or didn’t as it turned out… And TMV (The Moderate Voice, not to be confused with the fine TMZ) would be late in covering the story.
The hoax was discovered by The Smoking Gun, another site that fulfills its mission perfectly. Here’s part of its post:
In a colossal screw-up, the gossip web site TMZ today published a photo purporting to show John F. Kennedy frolicking on a yacht with a harem of naked women–except that the image actually appeared as part of a November 1967 Playboy photo spread, The Smoking Gun has learned. The TMZ hoax was billed as an “exclusive” featuring a photo that “could have altered world events” had it surfaced prior to JFK’s presidential campaign. “It could have torpedoed his run, and changed world history,” the site added. In reality, the photo appeared in story about Playboy’s “Charter Yacht Party: How to Have a Ball on the Briny with an Able-Bodied Complement of Ship’s Belles.” As seen in the below page from the November 1967 issue, the Playboy photo is in color. The “Exclusive” TMZ image is the same photo, just reproduced in black and white.
There’s a lot more so read TSG piece in full.
And here is the Playboy page with the photo, as discovered by TSG:
TSG also offers this side by side comparison.
This entire affair illustrates the peril of today’s mega-second news cycles with all kinds of outlets, old media and old, trying to get something first or something more quotable and/or outrageous (which is why political polemics are so heated on weblogs).
The moral of the story: If someone says “I have a story [or photo] that’ll bust this town/theblogosphere wide open” it might help to take a deep breath and check and recheck. And recheck.
Or to run a LOT of journalistic hedges in the post or article so you don’t wind up with an omelette on your face like the usually-first-rate-celebrity-site TMZ did.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.