Tuesday, September 9, 2014


One of the biggest stories, and perhaps the most investigative, on Monday was the disclosure of video showing NFL running back Ray Rice punching and knocking out his girlfriend.

The scoop, by gossip site TMZ.com, not only put the final piece of the puzzle to the story of Rice's domestic abuse of then-girlfriend and now wife, Janay Palmer, it also forced the NFL to finally suspended Rice and the Baltimore Ravens to drop him from their team.

But does the fallout also qualify TMZ.com for journalism's biggest prize. Could it win them a Pulitzer?

Why not?

While the Pultizer Prize has long been the province of newspapers, it was expanded in recent years to give websites a chance. Since then, sites from Politico to the Center for Public Integrity, have been named finalists and winners.

Why not TMZ.com? Sure, it's no New York Times or Washington Post in its usual day-to-day coverage.

But in this case, the website beat the Times, Post and many other news outlets in finding the piece of information that left no doubt that Rice had committed a heinous act and deserved punishment far greater than the two-week suspension he had received last month.

That suspension had already been deemed inadequate by the press and fans, and eventually NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself. Goodell later admitted the punishment fell short and announced that tighter restrictions and greater punishment on domestic abuse would be implemented for the future.

Still, he and the league were not about to change the suspension of Rice. Not until TMZ.com forced their hand.

Assuming the website broke no laws in obtaining the internal video of an Atlantic City elevator, it did what prize-winning news outlets are supposed to do - it broke news and forced change.

I covered the Pulitzer Prizes for more than 10 years at Editor & Publisher. During that time, many surprising pieces of journalism were given attention. At one point even The Onion was touted for the award for its September 11 coverage in 2001. Zack Stalberg, the respected former editor of The Philadelphia Daily News, was on a Pulitzer jury that year and urged it be considered.

The Pulitzer Prize rules state that nominees for investigative reporting are honored "for a distinguished example of investigative reporting, using any available journalistic tool."

That appears to be this incident in a nutshell. 

Could TMZ.com even be up for the Public Service Award? 

The most prestigious of the 14 Pulitzer journalism prizes, it is given to a news outlet "for a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper or news site through the use of its journalistic resources, including the use of stories, editorials, cartoons, photographs, graphics, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or other visual material."

Past winners of that Gold Medal Prize, as it is known, have included The Washington Post for Watergate reporting, The New York Times for the Pentagon Papers, and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and Sun Herald of Biloxi, Ms., for Hurricane Katrina coverage.

So far, TMZ.com's disclosure has heightened the discussion of domestic violence, pushed the most powerful sports league into making serious changes it would not previously make, and could well result in further concrete changes beyond sports to how domestic violence is handled and its perpetrators punished.

TMZ.com also raised concerns about how mainstream reporters, and the NFL itself, either ignored the internal elevator video of Rice or failed to uncover it. This video was likely obtainable by others but apparently other news outlets did not find it worthwhile. Or worse, did not want to.

The Public Service award historically goes to news outlets that not only uncover big news, but also spark changes necessary to improve the public good. If attention to domestic violence is increased to the point where real change is made either in or out of sports, and increased action is completed, TMZ.com could well be in the running for the news industry's greatest honor.


  1. "Entries must be based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles......."

    So, no.

  2. TMZ publishes daily online so it would be eligible. As for highest journalistic principles, that is always up to the board, of course.

    1. CNN.com also publishes daily online, but wouldn't be eligible (at least under current Pulitzer Board interpretations) because it is primarily a broadcast outlet.

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  4. Didn't it pay for the access? Or are we in a new pay-for-Pulitzer world? Asking honestly because I'm curious.

  5. There may be some room for interpretation. But the Pulitzer rules state: "Magazines and broadcast media, and their respective Web sites, are not eligible." I'd argue that TMZ, like the in-eligible "60 Minutes" is primarily a TV show, and only secondarily a website. Thus, not Pulitzer-eligible. Further IMHO the story itself wouldn't even come close to qualifying in the Public Service category.

  6. Well stated Roy, but I would argue TMZ is primarily a website with a TV show as secondary outlet much like the Wall Street Journal show on Fox News, etc.

  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/10/sports/football/tmz-broke-ray-rice-donald-sterling-and-jameis-winston-stories-in-10-month-span.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0

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  9. Does what TMZ did even qualify as journalism? They published raw video which they obtained from a third party. As far as I can tell, they didn't do any other reporting.