The occasion of Prince’s death immediately sparked two parallel discussions. The primary conversation was of course about the life and career of Prince. The second was about how much the public can—and should—trust TMZ, the outlet who, as they often do, first reported this shocking death of a beloved celebrity.
That second discussion took on a life of its own within the self-policing media. “America, It Is Time to Trust TMZ” declared Slate. On his scintillating Sunday morning media watchdog show, CNN’s Brian Stelter debated the topic with Janice Min, who as co-president of the company that owns The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, is one of TMZ’s main competitors in the field of celebrity gossip and breaking news.
Stelter and Min more or less agreed that the media needs to trust TMZ even if it doesn’t want to because the click economy incentivizes reporting celebrity deaths as quickly as possible. In the most diplomatic (and self-serving) manner she could possibly put it, Min essentially said she wants her publications to gulp from the traffic hose switched on by a celebrity death, so they have little choice but to follow TMZ’s lead. Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley makes the more forceful argument that the media should trust TMZ because TMZ is (almost) always right:
Unfortunately—as with a lot of other dark stories it’s been the first to cover, sometimes because it paid for information—TMZ was right on this one. Most famously, the site reported Michael Jackson’s death before anyone else; it also broke news about Heath Ledger’s death, Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna, Ray Rice’s assault on his now-wife, the tape of Donald Sterling making racist remarks, and several more big stories.
But Mathis-Lilley adds a parenthetical that hangs over any defense of TMZ’s reporting chops:
(As this tweet notes, though, the site did report in 2013 that “it doesn’t look good” for Lil Wayne, who TMZ asserted was in critical condition in an induced coma. Wayne, however, after associates said left the hospital a few days later after associates said TMZ’s account of his condition had been exaggerated, and he’s still alive.)
Back in March 2013, Lil Wayne was hospitalized in Los Angeles after suffering several seizures in his home. On March 15, TMZ reported an alarming scene:
We’re told Wayne is currently “unstable,” and has been placed in an induced coma. He is breathing through tubes.
We’re told several people are at Wayne’s bedside crying, and a number of rap artists and family members are on the way. Sources say the scene is violent as Wayne shakes uncontrollably.
As we all know, Lil Wayne is not dead. Three years later, he seems as healthy as ever. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel a few months after the hospitalization, Wayne described the situation as “serious” but also made it seem like a fairly routine occurrence in his life: “It’s just a private matter that I’ve been dealing with my whole life. We’re so used to it happening, so my doctors prepped all my homies.”
The incident is a blip in Wayne’s career. But for TMZ, it looms as a screw-up easily remembered by people who feel like the site’s gutter-scraping approach to gossip reporting makes them unreliable on subjects of hard news. So what happened? There are only two possibilities:
TMZ was wrong
Every publication gets stories wrong. Even big ones. The New York Times reported that there were WMDs in Iraq. It happens. Maybe TMZ’s sources had bad info, or maybe someone was out to embarrass them and purposefully fed them bullshit.
TMZ was right
In the years after Lil Wayne’s hospitalization, the narrative stemming from TMZ’s reporting on the saga has metastasized. Here is a short sampling of Twitter users immediately questioning TMZ’s report of Prince’s death before it was confirmed by other sources:
Remember that time TMZ said lil Wayne was dead and he wasn't...please let this be that— nevie (@nevie_sticks) April 21, 2016
Not confirmed tho. TMZ swore Lil Wayne was dead https://t.co/OWjbGZiecJ— BigBeasley (@sweetdickkimmy) April 21, 2016
Didnt TMZ report Lil Wayne was dead before? Dont go saying RIP Prince until it's official.— Kaleb Little #2hands (@Panther_NationX) April 21, 2016
Prince was only rushed to the hospital. Only TMZ said he was dead, just like they said lil Wayne died.— BigBeasley (@sweetdickkimmy) April 21, 2016
But TMZ never actually reported that Lil Wayne had died. Though it appears to have been deleted after the fact, the gravest news TMZ relayed was that Wayne was being read his last rites, a crucial bit of info that is still preserved in the aggregations that followed.
In reality, only a select few people on Earth definitively know if Lil Wayne did or did not have his last rites read to him. TMZ, as an organization and as a collection of individuals, sits outside that group, which means their reporting was inherently going to be secondhand. But given the evidence we have—basically, TMZ’s stories and Lil Wayne’s continued existence—it’s impossible to say beyond a reasonable doubt that TMZ’s reporting was inaccurate.
In any event, neither Lil Wayne nor TMZ seem ready to relive the incident. Representatives for Lil Wayne did not return a request for comment for this story, and neither did Harvey Levin. But a source who worked at TMZ around the time of the incident told me that TMZ remained confident in its reporting even after Wayne’s recovery and believed that Wayne’s camp went out of its way to embarrass the site.
“I think they were pissed off about it because he manipulated the situation,” the source said of TMZ. “Lil Wayne was gone. They thought he was gone.”
If there’s any circumstantial evidence that supports the alternate theory that TMZ’s reporting was more factual than not, it’s that TMZ clearly has spies lurking within Cedars-Sinai Hospital, the facility where Wayne was treated. Stories out of Cedars-Sinai first broken by TMZ include the naming of North West, the death of Garry Shandling, the quarantining of Tori Spelling, the 2012 hospitalization of Bobbi Kristina Brown, and pretty much anything involving Lamar Odom’s most recent stay there. Further, we know that Cedars-Sinai is (or was) teeming with potential leakers—the hospital fired six people in July 2013 for improperly accessing Kim Kardashian’s medical records.
None of this proves that TMZ was right, but, contrary to the accepted narrative, we also don’t know that they were wrong. (One thing TMZ has admitted to screwing up was this JFK hoax.) Eventually—perhaps if J. Randy Taraborrelli ever decides to write about him—we may learn exactly what happened in Lil Wayne’s Cedars-Sinai hospital room. But for now, Wayne’s entanglement with the tentacles of TMZ proves something we already know to be true, which is that TMZ will gladly report stories that give other publications pause. There may be handwringing over TMZ’s tactics and trustworthiness, but come the next big celebrity death, their competitors will be right behind them nonetheless.