Over the past week, The New York Times has busied itself by dissecting TMZ’s graphic video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino. This is partly motivated by professional envy: Executive editor Dean Baquet told The Daily Beast that “TMZ had a great scoop. I wish I had it.” But it’s also motivated by the paper’s misunderstanding of what TMZ actually published.
Baquet’s colleagues have heaped praise on the video’s visual impact. “It is impossible to separate the impact of TMZ’s Rice scoop from the way it was delivered—via a vérité video taken inside a casino elevator,” reporter Jonathan Mahler argued last week. “It was, you could say, the opposite of gossip; it was powerful, verified proof of Rice’s brutal behavior.”
The TMZ video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in a casino elevator is a stark reminder of the enduring and awesome power of the image. The two punches Rice delivers to his then fiancee take up only about four seconds of actual video time, yet they instantly blew away more than seven months of speculation, spin, damage control and image building from high-priced attorneys, fellow players, sports-media sympathizers, the Ravens organization and the National Football League. Blew it away!
In other words, TMZ’s video of Rice punching his wife most closely depicts what really happened, precisely because its shocking imagery—the “artifact,” the “actual video”—is untainted by spin or interference. Anyone could have published it. Even The New York Times.
One problem with this theory: The video that’s now been watched millions of times over was heavily edited by TMZ. The raw video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious is almost unwatchably glitchy. The site decided to delete and interpolate hundreds of individual frames to make Rice and Palmer’s actions more coherent—to make the punch appear as it actually happened.
“This video is a cleaned up version of the raw surveillance elevator video—the raw is jerky ... so we smoothed it out,” TMZ explained in their original post of the video. This is far from “vérité video.” It’s also the version that aired aired 37 times on television.
The contrast between the two versions is striking. Here’s a GIF of the pair walking into the elevator, as depicted in the unedited video:
And here’s the smoothed-out, edited version of the same scene:
(The same glitchiness affects the most violent portions of the original footage.)
It’s not as if TMZ was attempting, via strategic editing, to exaggerate or fabricate Rice’s violence. Even in the glitched-out footage, you can still gather that he knocks out his fiancée. But the original footage requires repeated viewings, and much closer scrutiny, to make sense of what’s going on. It’s far less jarring, and more open to interpretation, than its smoothed-out variation.
This might seem pedantic. After all, the edited footage is almost certainly closer to what the human eye would have perceived. But it’s difficult to envision a mainstream outlet “cleaning up” the original material to amplify its visual impact. Instances of photographic manipulation, ranging from subtle to extreme, have ignited dozens of high-profile media controversies. Remember Brian Ross’ staged Toyota death ride?
Had the Times edited the video in the same manner, journalism ethicists would have undoubtedly raised an alarm. (The paper’s guidelines say: “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way.”) And that alarm would have supplied valuable ammunition to the N.F.L.
This isn’t just a matter of journalism. As The Press of Atlantic City points out, “The cleaned up version would not be the one presented in court, if the case had gone to trial.” Given the significance of the edited video, it’s also hard to say whether the N.F.L. would have been obligated, if it did indeed obtain a copy of the raw footage, to smooth it out in order to better understand what it depicted.
A point worth emphasizing: I don’t think TMZ did anything wrong here. Like Gawker, TMZ is proudly a tabloid, so it’s not worth judging the site by the same standards of mainstream outlets. TMZ was utterly transparent about the fact that it edited the footage to make Rice’s actions more legible. And there’s no question, after you study the original footage, what those actions were.
But all of these points undercut what has become the dominant narrative about the elevator footage. The video everyone watched—the one everyone embedded, aired, and discussed—bore real consequences because it was heavily edited. And few other outlets could have published the video in the way TMZ did: by playing up substantially altered imagery while downplaying the raw, untouched material.
TMZ delivered justice, however late, to a celebrity athlete who nearly got away with beating his fiancée. But that didn’t happen because TMZ decided to embrace an unfiltered video medium. That happened because TMZ is ultimately a tabloid, and this was a story only a tabloid could tell.
Photo by Ronald Martinez / Getty Images