Special Report: How TMZ Got Lil Wayne’s ‘Last Rites’ Report Dead Wrong
The story of Lil Wayne‘s bout with seizures took an ominous turn on Friday (March 15) when TMZ reported that Wayne was in a medically induced coma and being read his last rites. The story, which is still developing, has lurched in competing directions and struck a chord within the hip-hop community and media.
The news was troubling enough before there were any reporting discrepancies. Then TMZ‘s claim about Wayne having his last rites read was removed without explanation. It was a major part of the report and its absence left a gaping hole in the story.
“People knew he was in the hospital and then there was this ‘last rites’ thing,” Chuck Creekmur, founder of hip-hop news site Allhiphop, told Radio.com. “In the media, everybody is looking for the scoop. But when you’re talking about somebody’s life, you have to hit it on the head.”
Rob Markman, who had just left his desk at MTV News, rushed back to the office in an attempt to make sense of the reports.
“To hear ‘critical condition,’ ‘ICU’ and ‘last rites,’ it makes it much more severe,” Markman told Radio.com. “We really love our artists and herald them as heroes. Big, Pac, Pun, Big L. You remember where you were when you heard the news of their deaths. As a fan and member of the hip-hop community, it hits you. As a journalist, you gotta get yourself together.”
While the hip-hop media outlets got into gear, the most complete reporting came out of TMZ, a site known for breaking news about celebrity mishaps, not for its attachment to the hip-hop community.
“I certainly reported what they reported because I trust them,” said Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind, the site founded by Russel Simmons. “Within five minutes, I was working on a story. I thought this could be it.”
RAP vs. TMZ: WHAT’S BEEF?
The truth about Wayne’s condition was caught up in a tug of war between Lil Wayne’s camp and TMZ, both sides wanting to control the story narrative. After TMZ‘s initial report, Mack Maine, the president of Wayne’s YMCMB label, sent out a message via Twitter.
Wayne is alive and well! We watching the Syracuse game…thanks for the prayers and concern..he will update you all soon. #love
— Mack Maine (@mackmaine) March 16, 2013
A tweet from Wayne’s account soon followed, but it raised more questions than it answered.
“I’m good everybody. Thx for the prayers and love.”
There was no Instagram picture of Wayne accompanying the tweet to give the claim validity. The wording felt foreign and outside of Wayne’s voice. It had all the elements of a cover-up, an attempt at spin.
TMZ issued a snide update, which took aim at Mack Maine’s attempt to control the narrative:
“Wayne is sleeping right now,” TMZ reported, “which is odd, because he just tweeted saying he’s OK and thanking people for the prayers and love.”
Mack Maine cursed the site. “F***TMZ,” he tweeted. He wasn’t alone in his sentiment.
“I thought it was a lilttle unprofessional on TMZ‘s part to taunt Wayne’s crew,” said Skolnik. “This is a young man’s life and these are his friends. I didn’t think it was necessary.”
T.I. hit Twitter to register his complaint and to verify that Wayne was not on his death bed.
“Just holla’d @my Lil bruh Tunechi…& he skraight! TMZ some f***-n***** for reporting that hoe-a**-s***!!!…That s*** surely got his mama hurtin, his kids hurtin, & he got true to da game patnas like me & Othas who ready to RIDE bout all da f*** s***”
While TMZ attacked the tweet from Wayne’s account, they quietly deleted the ‘last rites’ portion of their own story. Along with the back-and-forth, the sudden altering of the story created a cloud of controversy and a foggy understanding of the facts. For an organization like TMZ and its otherwise credible army of unnamed sources, it raised questions about its journalistic practices.
“Reporting for any organization about someone in critical condition is a cynical part of the news process, which is that a lot of organizations value the ability to declare something before its competitors,” said Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, the director of content for MySpace, who, as a music journalist, has long covered Lil Wayne’s career. “When it is someone dying, it becomes very touchy. It’s the dirty part of our business.”
NPR vs TMZ: THE SORRY EXCUSE
While the advent of the internet has helped bring clarity to erroneous reports, it has also helped proliferate faulty reporting with salacious headlines. Entertainment sites are not alone; history is littered with false claims from ambitious journalists.
In 1948, the Chicago Tribune’s front page story famously proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman,” when, in fact, Harry S. Truman won the presidential election, despite conventional wisdom and early polls to the contrary.
In recent times, the reputable NPR fell victim to “first” journalism. The outlet, known for its careful and deliberative approach to news, proclaimed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona dead after she had been shot in January of 2011.
However, unlike TMZ head Harvey Levin, NPR‘s Executive Editor Dick Meyer issued a mea culpa in the face of his organization’s transgressions.
“This was a serious and grave error,” Meyer wrote. “Thankfully, Rep. Giffords is alive today, though sadly other victims of the shootings are not. Corrections and properly updated reports were issued within minutes.”
There are several possible theories from newsroom professionals concerning TMZ‘s reasons for removing their initial post: Perhaps someone came to pray with the family and was interpreted as last rites by TMZ sources or maybe there was a legal reason to take it down. Because TMZ made no mention of their reporting, it remains as unclear as Wayne’s health condition.
“I believe they had it on good authority,” said Rob Markman, “it’s hard for me to question.”
While every organization has room for errors, it’s considered good ethics to admit the wrongs before moving on.
“I blame them for not owning up,” said Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s Chief Digital Officer and Professor at Columbia School of Journalism. As a former Dean of Student Affairs, he has hosted TMZ head Harvey Levin several times at Columbia.
“They should have said sorry. We live in the era of strike-through journalism. But they didn’t do that [strike through the faulty reporting] they removed it,” said Sreenivasan, who also serves as a contributor to CNET News. “That’s the biggest problem, they didn’t own up to it.”
MEETING THE ‘DEAD’ LINE
Unlike NPR, TMZ has found its stride by getting the story first not by its analysis and in-depth reporting.
A new report issued Monday (March 18) by the Pew Research Center, titled “The State of the News Media 2013,” revealed that the amount of full-time newsroom employees fell to 40,000, the lowest since 1978. As a result, the report said “the quality of journalism is consequently suffering, both on a national and local level.”
While the numbers focused on hard news outlets, there’s no reason to think entertainment reporting is likely to buck the trend. Outlets like TMZ, with its wide resources and niche reporting, seem to be thriving in the down market.
After all, beyond the hand wringing about TMZ‘s reports on Wayne, Thirty Mile Zone broke the news and every indication says they will remain a trusted fixture in celebrity reporting.
“I don’t think [the 'near death' reporting] will affect them in any true negative way, maybe with [Wayne's] Young Money [family],” said Chuck Creekmur. “They may not be receptive to random camera men in their faces.”
Sreenivasan points to TMZ’s past work, such as breaking the news of Michael Jackson‘s death in 2009, as evidence of their prominence.
“Just as the door was closing on my train, the last thing that came through my phone was TMZ reporting that Michael Jackson was dead,” Sreenivasan remembered. “My response was, ‘Oh my God, Michael Jackson is dead!’ I was fully confident it was right…If people want to dismiss TMZ now because of this, I would like to know if those same people dismissed NPR for getting Giffords’ death wrong.”
“At the end of the day, they did break the story,” said Creekmur. “They didn’t get it perfect but they were on it every step of the way.”
Beneath the story, for many reporters who consider themselves members of the hip-hop community, there is a greater concern than misleading reports.
“The important thing here is, whatever happened to Wayne, I hope he’s okay,” said Skolnik. “If it’s drugs involved here and he needs some help, I want him to get it. I don’t want to lose Wayne.”