On TMZ, Darren Shahlavi, and the human cost of gossip-mongering

June 10th, 2015


Confession: I used to be a frequent visitor to TMZ.

It was my go-to site when big news broke in the entertainment world: the deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston; Tiger Woods’ scandalous fall from grace.

I often craved small hits of salacious gossip to spice up my day, and TMZ was my go-to dealer.

But everything changed when Darren Shahlavi – one of my best friends, a true-blue blood brother – passed away earlier this year.

On January 20, shortly after news broke on social media that Darren had died in his sleep the previous week, TMZ – promising “exclusive details” – reported that he had died of “an apparent drug overdose.”

This unverified report trended on Facebook, and found its way into articles published by far more reputable media outlets.

Except that Darren didn’t die of a drug overdose. He died of a heart problem he didn’t even know he had.

I know this because of the coroner’s report issued by the Los Angeles Department of Coroner several months after his death.

Darren died of “a sudden and fatal heart attack,” his family wrote in a statement. “He was found to have Atherosclerosis (also known as arteriosclerotic vascular disease or ASVD). His left anterior descending artery was 95% blocked, which must have been worsening for several years.”

There wasn’t a single drug in his system, and nary a drop of alcohol (I probably have more alcohol in my system right now).

People die of drug overdoses all of the time. My heart aches for them, and their families.

But that isn’t Darren’s story, and TMZ has – apparently – refused to update their original story with the actual, verified truth.

They were – apparently – given a head’s-up one week before I published my own article on the Westender site.

Apparently TMZ couldn’t be bothered.

Apparently a heart attack isn’t news.

And, legally, TMZ apparently covered their ass because of their use of the word “apparent.”

To borrow from their vernacular of choice: TMZ suffers from an apparent lack of ethics.

…Okay, yes. TMZ is (apparently) unethical. This is obvious from outer space.

The problem is that the TMZ story keeps showing up in my Twitter feed.

The problem is that it’s the first thing that comes up when you Google Darren’s name.

The problem is that this mistruth is now part of Darren’s legacy.

This problem is that, in a few years time, if my daughter sits down to write a paper about her Uncle Big D, this “apparent drug overdose” will be part of the narrative.

At least she’ll have a leg-up in media studies.

I work in media. I do my best to substantiate every fact that appears in one of my columns, but sometimes I get things wrong.

When my errors are brought to my attention, I own my mistakes. I’m quick to correct them. I believe in the truth.

The truth isn’t always sexy. It isn’t click-bait. But it’s better than anything else because it’s what really happened.

TMZ: Why can’t you just plop a one-line update at the top of the “apparent drug overdose” story?

To Harvey Levin: Shoot me an email. Let’s talk. I want to hear the reasons you’ve sat on the story. I’d love to hear why a story about Lizzie McGuire’s Tinder exploits takes precedence over repairing the damage you (apparently) inflicted to the memory and legacy of a lovely man.

I really do want to understand.

To everyone else: Every time you visit the TMZ site, you’re encouraging this kind of (apparent) unethical behaviour. I’m sure this isn’t the first time they’ve done this. But maybe, if we’re loud enough, it will be the last.

And maybe we all need to revisit what we look at as news. Me, I’m opting for substance over titillation. Try Ms. Magazine, NPR, or the Westender.

Or pick up the phone and tell your best friend that you love them.

–Sabrina Furminger

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