Why It Matters That TMZ Suppressed the Racist Bieber Tape

Gawker ran a fascinating tidbit of news this week related to the ongoing Justin-Bieber-racist-video feeding frenzy. Almost lost in all the “OMG IS BIEBER RACIST” stuff was the fact that TMZ has had the tape for years, something confirmed by TMZ themselves over the weekend: “[We] got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it… in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid.” Not so, says Gawker — in fact, the reason TMZ didn’t publish is because they decided “to hold [the video] over Bieber and his team’s heads in exchange for appearances on TMZ’s media properties and cooperation with stories.”

The noteworthy thing here isn’t that it appears Bieber has been a dick longer than anyone expected, although he’s making this position more and more difficult to sustain (and in fairness, it was never particularly easy in the first place). I’m not really gonna discuss the ins and outs of the whole affair here, except to say that things I (and, presumably, most people) knew not to do when I was 14 years old included “not singing racist songs and making jokes about chasing black men with chainsaws.”

No, more than anything, this is a fascinating insight into the way the gutter press works. No one expects a shred of journalistic ethics from TMZ, an outlet that’s taken the ethos and modus operandi of the Murdoch tabloids and expanded them into a 24/7 celeb gossip shitfest for the digital age. But look, this tape is either newsworthy or it isn’t. And if it is, then it was four years ago, too.

It’s hard to argue that it’s not. For all that I think the world can largely do without sites like TMZ and its ilk, the fact that a kid who’s an icon to gazillions of people thinks it’s OK to crack racist jokes in 21st-century America… that is newsworthy. Especially if he’s comfortable enough with casual racism to air it when he knows the cameras are switched on. So, yes, this is news, and it should have been four years ago.

TMZ isn’t especially interested in news, though, it seems. No, what TMZ and pretty much everyone else on the Internet is interested in is clicks, and it appears someone in the site’s upper echelons did some sort of back-of-the-envelope cost/benefit analysis and decided that it’d be more valuable to have Bieber over a barrel for the foreseeable future than it would to break the story when they got hold of the tape. If this is true, they essentially traded the truth for favors, and have been milking the deal ever since.

This is not journalism. Indeed, outlets who’ve reported what TMZ did as “blackmail” aren’t far from the truth. I’m not naïve enough to think that this sort of thing doesn’t go on all the time — I mean, shit, I’ve worked in this industry for years, and the tabloid press has been trading stories for favors for a whole lot longer than that. “Managing” the press is essentially what parliamentary press secretaries and similar types do for a living — there’s more than a hint of truth to Peter Capaldi’s terrifying Malcolm Tucker character on brilliant British parliamentary satire The Thick of It, which gives an insight into the machinations of the political press that’s both hilarious and depressing.

And sure, perhaps there are moments when it might be expedient for a journalist to agree to sit on something — if people’s lives are at stake, or if the journalist in question thinks it might lead to ultimately getting a better story, or plenty of other reasons you can think of if you take a moment to think about it. None of those were at play here, though. And it means that what TMZ did was wrong. Saying this almost feels redundant, because no one expects TMZ to do right, but it’s worth saying nonetheless.

Clearly, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if Bieber did get to hide himself doing something stupid on camera in return for four years’ worth of genuflecting to TMZ. The world keeps turning. But shit, think about what might have happened if the Washington Post agreed to bury that nasty, inconvenient story about a couple of people breaking into a hotel, in exchange for a few year’s worth of exclusive Nixon interviews and a nice seat at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Of course, the stakes aren’t comparable. The principle is the same, though — and really, we shouldn’t tolerate this from anything claiming to be any sort of journalistic outlet. But we do.

Even more than that, though, this whole sorry business makes you think about just how complicit the mainstream news media is in the construction of celebrities’ images. In an ideal world, you’d have spin/PR/etc. types trying to construct an image, because that’s their job, and on the other side of the fence, you’d have journalists trying to see what was beneath that image, because that’s their job. More and more, though, this isn’t the case — instead, the fences have come down, and both sides collaborate on the business of image building through a process of give and take, with the actual truth largely irrelevant.

This is particularly prevalent in the world of entertainment journalism. It’s fascinating, for instance, to attend a publicity junket for a Hollywood blockbuster and see how the stars are wheeled into rooms full of journalists for 15-minute stints of making sure the hacks get the right on-message quotes. There are journalists who do this for a living, flying from fancy hotel to fancy hotel, “reporting” on film after film. No one says you have to write nice things about every film, but if you don’t, you might find that your name’s not on the list for the next big movie.

It happens in the music industry all the time, too — publicists pitch you on a band you’ve never heard of, with a heavy hint that covering that band might get you access to someone bigger. Favors for favors. Play the game. Give and take.

When it’s pop stars and actors you’re talking about, the impact is ultimately pretty benign. But it’s symptomatic of a more pervasive problem: that the lines between what’s news and what’s spin and what’s entertainment are more blurred than ever these days. Most of what we consume is a sort of hybrid of the three — “content,” to use the modern term for it. It’s worth reading up on how the stuff on sites like PR Web makes its way into aggregated “articles” in alleged hard news sites, for instance, or the pervasiveness of product placement masquerading as opinion.

So has it ever been, of course. The whole idea of impartial journalism has always been chimera, and the power of newspapers in swinging elections and making or breaking careers has been well documented over the years. But even so, it’s kinda terrifying how often outlets like TMZ get cited as reputable sources — and how few reliable sources there are left. Let the reader beware.