TMZ has struck again, and the rest of the mainstream media are in hot pursuit.
There was a time when the media establishment looked down its nose at the Hollywood gossip site. But there it was, credit for TMZ on the New York Times front page and just about everywhere else.
The website broke one of its biggest stories over the weekend, a stunning racist rant by the owner of the L.A. Clippers that has created a crisis for the NBA and even drew negative comment from President Obama.
The audiotape shows Sterling, who owns a team that employs African-American stars, urging his now-former girlfriend not to bring blacks to the games, not to be seen with blacks, and not to post pictures of herself with blacks such as Magic Johnson. This is a particularly virulent form of racism.
Here’s the Instagram shot that prompted the tirade.
The Clippers put out a mealy-mouthed statement saying that if the tape is authentic, the comments don’t represent Sterling’s views. But of course they represent his views. Unless the thing was deceptively edited, that’s the power of listening to the man’s own voice.
I’m not always a fan of TMZ’s methods. The site makes a practice of checkbook journalism. If it paid for this tape, as it has for other scoops, that’s unethical. But it has caused such an explosion—an NBA investigation, denunciation by Magic, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and others, the withdrawal of a planned NAACP award—that few are likely to care. And I admire the news-slash-gossip machine that Harvey Levin has built.
The Clippers statement assumes, as I do, that the female friend, identified as V. Stiviano, gave TMZ the recording. The team then pivots to saying the Sterling family has accused her of embezzlement and that she vowed to “get even.”
"We do know that the woman on the tape -- who we believe released it to TMZ -- is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would "get even.'"
That’s a hoot. As Business Insider reports, Sterling gave Stiviano huge gifts of cash, property, cars and other items, and the lawsuit was filed by Sterling’s wife. That’s right, the wife wants the gal pal to give back the booty. And while Stiviano may be well be motivated by revenge, so are many sources.
By the way, says the NYT, “In 2009, Mr. Sterling paid $2.725 million to settle a housing discrimination suit brought by the Justice Department, which accused him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of the apartment buildings he owned. In the settlement, Mr. Sterling did not admit wrongdoing.”
TMZ long ago proved that it can play in the big leagues. It was TMZ that disclosed the anti-Semitic rant by Mel Gibson when he was arrested for a DUI. It was TMZ that got the cellphone footage of Michael Richards spewing racial slurs in a nightclub act. It was TMZ that obtained the recording of Alec Baldwin calling his teenage daughter a “thoughtless little pig.” It was TMZ that published the photos of a naked Prince Harry partying in Las Vegas. It was TMZ that scooped the world on Michael Jackson’s death.
The site also broadened its focus, conducting amusing and sometimes embarrassing ambush interviews with members of Congress. As Levin, the founder and star of TMZ’s television show, once told me: "They're so tightly controlled by their people: 'Oh my God, you can never do anything that isn't vetted.' This is way more powerful.”
While the site made some mistakes, over time other media outlets learned to trust its reporting, which often relies on documents, tapes and other evidence.
The Donald Sterling story was a slam dunk. And by the time it plays out, the owner is going to wish that TMZ had stuck to celebs.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.