Ron Rosenbaum

Was The Times " Hoaxed" By TMZ's JFK Nudes "Scoop"

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether it was just a coincidence that the august New York Times, for whom I’m proud to have written (including eight cover stories for the New York Times Magazine), published an an almost full-page Valentine to the gossip site TMZ this morning.

On the very morning TMZ published what they seemed to think was the scandal scoop of the century (“The JFK Photos That Could Have Changed History”).

This was an allegedly long hidden or lost photo supposedly taken on a yacht in 1956, supposedly showing JFK sunbathing while nude young women cavorted in the sea and on the deck. If real, if released at the time, it could well have derailed his bid for the presidency and, yes, changed history. Of course JFK probably did engage in such behavior many times before and during his presidency, so you could say “fake but true.”

But it was definitely a fake, as TMZ had to admit later in the day when the photo was revealed to be from a 1967 Playboy photoshoot with JFK’s head apparently cleverly photoshopped onto one of the sunbathing men’s bodies. I’m sure TMZ didn’t try to pull a fast one; I’m sure they believed it. They had all sorts of “experts” to vouch for it.

So TMZ was taken in and admitted it. But why did the Times run their big TMZ story today? Before the original JFK story and the hoax revelation? Sadly the Times quotes TMZ chief Harvey Levin telling the Times reporter that TMZ “has the same rigid standards as any operation in America.” Right.

And then — get this — the Times reporter essentially endorses the claim, saying TMZ’s “track record of accuracy may speak for itself.” (I love that “may”– some copy editor may deserve a raise for inserting it. Basing this accuracy claim mainly on some Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan-type “scoops.”)It will be interesting to see how they try to walk this back.

Could it be — and I’m just speculating here — that someone at TMZ or someone who knew someone involved in the photo “analysis” tipped the Times that TMZ had something really, really big coming up, so they ought to run their TMZ story right away before everyone else hailed this history-making scoop? Or did someone tell the Times what was coming up and the Times decided they could look really on top of the hot stuff by publishing their TMZ story today? They fire all those talented reporters and publish this.

Was the Times, then, a secondary victim of the JFK photo hoax? It’s almost too metaphorically resonant to be true. The Times, fearful that it’s losing ground to all those cool new media sites, runs a story that shows just how “with it” the Old Grey Lady is. Only to be splashed by the mudbath that very day. “Rigid standards.” “Track record of accuracy.” Words that will be long remembered.

It’s like a moral fable of the old media/new media age. Right at the end of the new media decade. In fact, this could be the media story of the decade in a nutshell. The price you pay for trying to look cool, rather than sticking to what you do best.