CNN spent most of Thursday covering Justin Bieber's arrest, an event mostly relevant to die-hard teen fans (some of whom were so distracted they're totally going to fail midterms) and celebrity gossip outlets like TMZ. But with TMZ also providing the bulk of scoops on the matter, we couldn't help but compare how the two news organizations handled the affair. And a careful analysis has led us to the definitive conclusion that TMZ is better than CNN. Not only better at reporting on Bieber, but better at reporting, full stop. Hear us out.
Breaking Bieber News
Early yesterday morning, Justin Bieber was arrested on DUI and drag racing charges. Naturally, TMZ — which makes a habit of keeping tabs on celebrities in the early morning hours — was on the story right away and kept up with developments all day, as you can see by a dense series of tweets on the subject:
VIDEO of Justin Bieber Being ARRESTED For DUI and Drag Racing http://t.co/bFMMEek7Im— TMZ (@TMZ) January 23, 2014
Justin Bieber MUG SHOT: Arrested For DUI, Drag Racing and Resisting Arrest http://t.co/X0nvIdazVu— TMZ (@TMZ) January 23, 2014
Justin Bieber -- Faces the Judge After DUI Arrest [LIVE] http://t.co/Ck8bM3hMrM— TMZ (@TMZ) January 23, 2014
Justin Bieber -- He Picked Wrong Town to Screw Up in ... Says Miami Beach Mayor http://t.co/qtUnptwsG8— TMZ (@TMZ) January 23, 2014
CNN, jumping on board a little later, didn't tweet nearly as much:
Their muted response initially makes it seem like a more reputable establishment, giving a trivial story trivial attention, although the #FreeBieber hashtag is a blatant social media ploy to get more attention.
But CNN is not giving the story minimal attention: In addition to the normal breaking news updates, the network is airing an hour-long special on Bieber, tonight at 10:00 p.m.
Justin Bieber's Wild Ride, airing from 10:00 p.m. Friday, will "take a look at the roller-coaster life of the pop star, from his No. 1 hits to his tabloid exploits and recent brushes with the law, culminating in Thursday's arrest in Miami." Nischelle Turner reports.
So instead of updating the public with emerging details and on-the-scene footage, like TMZ is still doing — according to the outlet, Miami police officers have been suspended for giving Bieber VIP treatment previous to the arrest — CNN has opted to give us a hastily assembled documentary on a 19-year-old pop star's "wild ride."
And even though CNN reserved its full on Bieber coverage for tonight, they managed to slip in a Bieber-related gaffe yesterday. CNN.com featured the Bieber story next to massive full-page Toyota ad for an initiative urging parents to "teach teenagers how to drive during their first years on the road." Unplanned, of course, but awkwardly perfect.
TMZ actually has a pretty good track record of breaking celebrity stories. The outlet was the first to report that Michael Jackson had died, relying on a number of inside sources to break the story even before the coroner's office. It was (controversially) the first to show LAPD photos of Rihanna after she contacted police alleging domestic abuse by Chris Brown, a revelation that greatly influenced public opinion about Brown. TMZ also broke the story of a massive hack that exposed the financial information of public figures including Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
CNN, on the other hand, has a history of embarrassing reporting errors. The outlet was panned for shoddy reporting surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing. CNN was among the first outlets to erroneously report an arrest and one of the last to retract the mistake. In 2012, the CNN hastily announced that the Affordable Care Act had been struck down by the Supreme Court, failing to read the decision all the way through. Others took great offense to CNN's coverage of the Steubenville rape case, when correspondent Poppy Harlow's reaction to the guilty verdict seemed more sympathetic to those convicted, than to the victims.
It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures — star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart...when that sentence came down.
Obviously, CNN has a lot of reporters who do great work and it usually does provide accurate coverage of major news events. And TMZ certainly has its own share of embarrassing gaffes and inappropriate mistakes. But we would argue that falsely reporting an arrest during an ongoing national security situation or botching the biggest legal story of the year is categorically worse than, say, reporting that Alec Baldwin said "faggot" instead of "fathead."
TMZ has never been accused of tasteful restraint. But they weren't the ones who tweeted this on Wednesday night:
14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you. http://t.co/5ZFqHFrviw— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 23, 2014
As perceptive Twitter users were quick to point out, the headline is a cheap, Upworthy-like ploy to get readers to click on an extremely sad and sensitive (and already pretty shocking) story:
Upworthied. “@cnnbrk: 14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.”— Devin Faraci (@devincf) January 23, 2014
And now CNN is Upworthy. Sigh. RT @cnnbrk: 14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.— Andrew Jones (@andrewmjones) January 23, 2014
@cnnbrk More shocked CNN is falling for this type of headline writing. I guess if you need those hooks and lures, use them in abundance.— John Book (@thisisjohnbook) January 23, 2014
TMZ utilizes a crass, abrasive tone and routinely insults the famous subjects in its coverage of celebrity antics. But it stands by its voice and operates well within the parameters it has set. CNN, on the other hand, says it just reports the news. It's supposed to be the responsible adult in the room, but didn't act much like this week. It didn't help matters that the laid off 40 journalists in the midst of the Bieber full-court press. They may not have cutoff a Congresswoman to cover a pop star's court hearing the way MSNBC did, but if it's going to act like gossip rag, it should at least do a better job of it.