A Takedown of TMZ: On the Exploitation of Black Death

For many of us, confirmation of Migos rapper Takeoff’s death came via a TMZ post that included photos of his body—and this is not the first time the site has profited from Black people's pain.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 04 2022

12 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: death, domestic violence, anti-Black and Islamophobic racism. 

In a 2018 New York Times article, author Sarah Sentilles talked about teaching a course on photography and war, and discussing with her students the types of bodies we do see in Western media (“dead Iraqis, dead Afghans, dead Syrians—yes, we saw those bodies, blown up and bloodied, buried in rubble, partly covered by sheets, on the floor, on the ground, on a stretcher, in a pile”) versus the types we decidedly do not (dead Americans). “Though we couldn’t reach an agreement about whether or not the media should show images of our war dead, my students understood that there was a relationship between the visible images from other countries and the suppressed images from our country,” she wrote. “Hiding some dead bodies affects how other dead bodies are viewed.”

Hiding some dead bodies affects how other dead bodies are viewed.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, though in a different context.

Early on Tuesday morning, Migos rapper Takeoff died after he was fatally shot at a bowling alley in Houston. I woke up to the news reverberating through my Twitter feed—first, a tweet here and there questioning whether it was true, then the requisite RIP messages, then a wave of posts saying TMZ had confirmed the news, with many people also criticizing the site’s decision to post photos and video of Takeoff’s body alongside their article. I admit, I’ve done my best to avoid actually seeing them. (I’ve written before about not wanting to consume photos and videos of Black death, even when there’s an argument to be made that they’re necessary, which definitely doesn’t apply here.) But I don’t have to see them to know that it’s weird to do this, to callously publish photos of a person’s dead body, putting profit above his humanity.

It is not normal—even for TMZ—to publish photos of a person’s dead body

To be clear, it’s weird for TMZ to publish photos of any public figure’s dead body. Yes, the multiplatform media brand has a reputation for publishing the ‘truth’ about celebrities and public figures, the things they don’t want their fans and followers to know, ideally with a headline containing a cruel pun and three to five exclamation marks. But posting footage of someone’s body after they’ve died is widely understood as disrespectful and morbid, and the fact that TMZ does it at all fits right in with its salacious, tabloid-y approach to journalism. But it’s also evidence of the site’s problems with race. To be blunt: it rarely goes so far as to post photos of white people’s dead bodies. In fact, the only ones I could find were Jeffrey Epstein’s autopsy photos. TMZ might toe the line of disrespect by posting photos of someone’s home, as it did when Star Trek star Anton Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in his driveway, or the place where they died, as it did with the hotel room where Bob Saget died, but in general, it doesn’t cross that line. 

That’s not the case when we’re talking about Black people, and Black men in particular. In 2011, the site published photos taken during Michael Jackson’s autopsy. In 2018, it published video footage of rapper XXXTentacion in a car after he was fatally shot. In 2019, it published surveillance video showing a gang member shooting rapper Nipsey Hussle outside of the latter’s clothing store. In 2020, it published photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe and Gianna Bryant (before the family had even been notified, might I add), the fatal car crash that killed football player Tarvaris Jackson and video of paramedics trying to revive rapper Pop Smoke after he was shot during a home invasion. Earlier this year, when people propped up rapper Goonew’s body in a club as part of a memorial celebration, it posted those photos, too.

‎This disparity is not a coincidence; it actually plays into a deeply familiar dynamic. In her New York Times article, Sentilles references Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, saying, “Sontag argued that showing only photographs of violence that happens abroad generates separation between subjects and viewers. These images imply that tragedy is inevitable and unavoidable—and therefore more acceptable—when it is experienced by faraway people; they create the sense that violence is something that happens elsewhere and to others.” This is very common in news coverage of the developing world, but we also saw something similar in the way journalists were talking about the war in Ukraine. TMZ’s decision-making around whose dead bodies are shown and whose are hidden functions in exactly the same way. When Black people, and especially Black men, die, the site’s decision to show their bodies is disrespectful and dehumanizing, and hints at a risk-assessment model that diminishes the importance of Black people’s lives—they have already done the math and know they’ll make more money by posting than they stand to lose through any possible backlash. But it also positions these deaths as distant from its white audience’s lives, as well as inevitable, unavoidable and acceptable—an idea that already has a disturbingly strong foothold in Western society, and directly leads to higher mortality rates, incarceration rates and health outcomes for this group. 

TMZ has always profited from Black pain

Using people from marginalized groups in this way is an old playbook for TMZ, and for the gossip industry. From the very beginning, its founder, lawyer-turned-media-personality Harvey Levin, has tried to tell two very different stories about the site. On one hand, he positions it as a journalistic endeavour (in one interview, he responded to a question about how TMZ digs up all the dirt it does by saying, “It’s so funny to me that people ask that question. We’re a news operation. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do”) on the other, he runs it like an intelligence agency, according to a 2016 New Yorker investigation into the site’s reporting tactics. He pays an army of sources employed everywhere from airlines and limo companies to salons and hotels, and even sometimes within celebrity’s own camps, for scoops (a breach of traditional journalistic ethics) and employs a second army of paparazzi loyal to the site, whose only job is to catch celebrities doing things on tape. Sometimes this strategy yields completely uninteresting footage; sometimes it yields the site’s massive exclusives. Think, Mel Gibson being charged with a DUI and subsequently going on an antisemitic rant. Solange attacking Jay Z in an elevator. Chris Brown assaulting Rihanna. Michael Jackson’s death. Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in a casino elevator.

In her exhaustive analysis of the site and Levin himself, journalist and cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen compared Levin’s approach to that of Richard Harrison, the editor-in-chief of Confidential, a 1950s tabloid that offered readers the ‘truth’ about the stars of that era, from Liberace’s sexuality to the real reason for Marilyn Monroe’s divorce, information Harrison gathered using tactics that Levin would find very familiar. “Harrison and Levin both developed a publication around their personalities and attempted to imprint their sensibilities as broadly as possible. Both were incredibly savvy about the law and the way to wield it in their favor; both relied heavily on the seemingly human impulse to trade secrets for money; both understood that secrets about race and sexuality, especially female sexuality, are the most effective ways to draw an audience,” she wrote.

‎‘Secrets about race and female sexuality’ are the especially relevant bits there—these themes are at the core of the site’s more viral content, something staffers and Levin don’t just understand, but actually chase in order to attract a larger audience, which they can then serve to advertisers. According to a 2020 petition by civil rights non-profit Color of Change, “celebrity gossip website TMZ has built a company based on gossip, and reaped the benefits of Black trauma, while blurring the lines between factual journalism and knee-jerk click bait. In 2013, after Andre Lowe was murdered the website rushed to post the video of his murder despite his family asking them not to post it. Also in 2013, TMZ made false claims that rapper Lil Wayne was in a coma and on life support. When Whitney Houston died of an overdose in 2012, a TMZ reporter bribed hotel employees into letting him into her room, so he could take photos of the bath tub in which her body was found. These moments featured Black pain that drove millions to a TMZ website that has approximately 500 million advertising impressions per month, resulting in over 100 million dollars in company value as of 2010.”

We have to understand TMZ’s decision to publish photos of Takeoff’s dead body in a wider cultural context

And the site’s racism and misogyny continues to attract an audience, even if that audience is likely more fragmented than it once was. In September 2007, two years after its launch, the site was pulling in 103 million page views and 10.5 million unique visitors per month, and during particularly gossip-y news cycles, such as the one surrounding Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, that number could reach as high as 279 million page views. By the time Petersen was digging into the business of TMZ in 2014, the site was pulling in 27.23 million unique visitors a month, which showed much slower growth than its competitors. Now, it’s hard to tell what kind of traffic the site gets, especially considering how many outlets—including Black-focused ones like The Shade Room and Hollywood Unlocked—have taken inspiration from its model and attracted huge audiences in the process.  

But pure metrics don’t tell the whole story; a better measure of TMZ’s power is its influence on the world of entertainment journalism and even internet culture in general. That’s because the brand didn’t just cultivate a legacy based on its accuracy (the number of people who told me they refuse to believe gossip until TMZ confirms it this week alone!), change the way media talks about public figures, push mainstream publications to publish photo and video evidence of those public figures’ misdeeds or disrupt the power balance between celebrities and journalists; it also helped normalize a very particular style of talking about celebrities, one that’s mean-spirited and apathetic, if not actually cruel. And that’s where we come in, because it wasn’t just that TMZ had posted the photos and video of Takeoff’s last moments. It was that an entire swath of the internet reposted that footage, then analyzed it and shared their theories for clout.

‎Sure, it’s hard to prove a direct, causal link between TMZ’s coverage and people’s behaviour, but there’s no way that seeing the site treat Black people’s pain as both entertainment and a commodity doesn’t impact its audience; I honestly think this empowers people to see Black pain and trauma as entertainment and minimize the humanity of Black people. But I admit that it’s a little bit circular; after all, the site covers Black people this way because we allow it. We click on its links, we share its posts and we gloss over all the things that make it problematic in the name of satisfying our curiosity. As trauma-informed psychotherapist Lizandra Leigertwood told USA Today this week, “people don't necessarily always realize how much they're perpetuating this idea of Black trauma and pain by reposting things without really thinking about it. It's been relived and rehashed in the public eye. This is real dehumanization of Black people, their feelings and their experiences that they have to go through all the time.”

The last time I wrote about what to do with images of Black people’s pain and/or death, it was in the context of police brutality. Those videos are still awful, but there’s an argument to be made that they can serve a purpose. Photos like the ones were talking about now are different; there’s no possible benefit to publishing them, we’re just consuming trauma porn. Worse, we are contributing to TMZ’s bottom line while doing so, because, as I argued in a previous newsletter, “interest means clicks, clicks mean revenue—and the end result is… Black people’s deaths become monetized while Black people are dehumanized.”

In short: we don’t have to do this. So, let’s not.


And Did You Hear About…

The Cut’s argument thoughtful (but depressing) argument that thin is back in.

This excellent profile of Bilal Baig, the star and creator of CBC’s Sort Of, by writer Soraya Roberts.

They Did That, a new podcast about the trailblazers and innovators—many of them women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ folks—who have been erased from the history books.

TV writer Ariel Dumas’ Twitter thread on the funniest tweets ever, which feels especially quaint considering how quickly that website is descending into unprecedented levels of hellishness.

This difficult but essential read about Caitlyne Gonzales, one of the kids who survived the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

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