TMZ has always been the Donald Trump of celebrity news websites. While Page Six will consistently reach for a clever pun and Lainey Gossip will try to get the whole story, TMZ can be characterized by a permanently broken moral compass and whichever horny SEO robot writes their headlines. The controversial hate-love child of Hollywood and Harvey Levin is, like our President, either deplorable or magnetic, depending on who you’re asking.
But even when TMZ is great, it’s hardly good. The site's remarkably efficient reporting on stories like Rihanna’s assault by Chris Brown raised more questions than it answered—like how did TMZ obtain a picture of Rihanna’s bruised face from police evidence, and who benefits from sensationalist, sensitive images of battered women? These are the sorts of judgement calls TMZ contends with on an almost daily basis, as an outlet that deals in celebrity misbehavior, crime, and misfortune. Suffice to say, if an A to C-Lister is taking a shot or having an argument anywhere within the Thirty Mile Zone, Levin and his team will be there to tell the story—and if the scoop is right, they’ll even pay their sources. (Never mind those times they screwed up a report or sat on a major story.)
Murky morals aside, Trump and TMZ would probably have a lot to talk about. After all, Donald Trump is our most A-List obsessed President; a man who’s tweeted not once, not twice, but nine times about Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s relationship. The site also has a tendency toward rampant slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and general misogyny. When they’re not objectifying young starlets with headlines like “Ariel Winter: Booty Out At Pool Party,” TMZ has developed a pet penchant for attacking and attempting to delegitimize female victims. Prime examples include their round-the-clock coverage of Derrick Rose’s rape case and Amber Heard’s domestic abuse allegations. In the Rose case, TMZ essentially did the NBA star’s dirty work for him, publishing articles like “Derrick Rose to Rape Accuser: You’re No Prude You Hooked Up With Nick Young.” And yes, the article itself is just as bad as it sounds, with tidbits including, “The docs also claim Jane Doe interacted with lots of celebs and had sexual relationships with at least 2 NBA players other than Rose…bringing a major question about her credibility into play.”
The same could be said about TMZ’s credibility, which only became more questionable in the wake of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s contentious divorce. Choice TMZ headlines included: “Johnny Depp Claims Amber Heard’s Gonna Ruin His Credit,” “Amber Heard: Cops Interviewed By LAPD Brass: We Saw No Injuries,” and “Amber Heard: ‘Ear-Witnesses’ Say She’s A Liar: Johnny Wasn’t Near Her.” In fact, the website has shown such a clear and obvious tendency to side with dickish dudes that celebrity gossip blogger Lainey Lui was driven to ask this (rhetorical) question: “Is TMZ now officially the gossip voice for the men’s rights movement?”
Of course, you can’t talk about the men’s rights movement or rape culture without talking about Donald Trump, a man only an apologist could love. Trump, who’s been accused of assault by over a dozen women and even copped to his invasive techniques on tape, is exactly the sort of male celebrity who would benefit from TMZ’s forgiving coverage. If a former reality TV star with a passion for rating women on their appearances isn’t TMZ’s target audience, then no one is. So it’s no surprise that our consistently entertaining Commander-in-Chief has struck up a relationship with Harvey Levin, whom Alex Baldwin once called “a festering boil on the anus of American media.” Six weeks before the election, during what one could only imagine was a busy time, Trump cleared an hour to meet with the TMZ founder and talk about all the shiny stuff he owns. The resulting special, OBJECTified, aired on Fox News in November and gave the American people an intimate look at the man they had just voted into office, as he “showcases the objects in his home and offers the stories behind each memento.”
TMZ’s one-off edition of pretty things with Donald J. Trump was relatively serious fare for the entertainment site. In fact, it may have been designed to introduce the world to TMZ’s political coverage. “For years, questions have swirled over whether and how TMZ would ever transfer its style to the Hollywood of politics, Washington D.C.,” wrote Politico’s Hadas Gold, days after the election. “Though no official expansion has ever been announced, and the company declined several requests for interviews and questions about this topic earlier this year, this special may be the first step in that direction.”
In past administrations, TMZ perhaps had neither the background nor the tools to cover the White House. Now, in the Twitter-heavy, controversy-stricken, utterly absurd age of Trump, the website is somewhat well-suited to its new beat. They’ve cited Trump-friendly sources on Melania and Barron’s reported D.C. move, and given Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen a platform to attack Snoop Dogg. They’ve also applied their disarming impromptu interview tactics to new victims, sneaking up on Senators on Capitol Hill and following Nancy Pelosi around. Apparently, shoving a camera in DNC Chair Tom Perez’s face to ask about POTUS is the new snapping pics of a Real Housewife’s butt in leggings at LAX. The more things seem to change, the more TMZ is the fucking worst.
So why shouldn’t America continue on this slip ’n’ slide toward ignorance and illiteracy, gradually replacing all of our political reporting with fifteen-second clips of Ted Cruz talking about Snoop Dogg? Well, if you think that the American public is letting Trump foolishness distract them from the real issues now (healthcare, Russia, environmental disasters, impending Armageddon, etc.), just wait until TMZ floods the internet with 24/7 political clickbait. More cheap, buzzy, biased political coverage is the last thing we need, but that might be where we're heading: Earlier this month, US Weekly was purchased by the owner of the famously Trump-friendly National Enquirer. With a Trump-friendly media titan helming US Weekly and TMZ’s Levin meeting with the President in the Oval Office, celebrity gossips outlets that used to feel apolitical are starting to feel—to put it lightly—compromised. Flipping through a tabloid or surfing TMZ is an experience best enjoyed with one’s critical thinking abilities temporarily disabled, which is impossible to do if you suspect your government is trying to brainwash you.
Last, but certainly not least, while pivoting to pro-Trump reporting may feel on-brand for TMZ, political coverage still isn’t the site’s strong suit. Levin & Co. have been incredibly successful in applying their own unique, autonomous brand of misogyny and mindlessness to Hollywood. If we lose TMZ to D.C., we won’t just risk cheapening an already compromised political discourse—we’ll also have to contend with a TMZ that’s only half-dedicated to reality TV train wrecks and unhappily married A-listers. Videos of Justin Bieber and Drake are objectively more interesting to watch than clips of Ted Cruz. TMZ’s efforts to make its political coverage great again will only make the website more boring, not to mention even more morally bankrupt.