Celebrity Death Watch, the slightly too early edition: When first is too fast

When a celebrity of the magnitude of a Michael Jackson dies, it's no small matter who gets credited with the scoop. In this case, that would be TMZ.com, the online tabloid best known, until now, for bringing the world footage of a drunk Mel Gibson ranting about Jews. While major news outlets like CNN and The New York Times were merely reporting that Jackson was in a coma, TMZ (which, like DailyFinance, is owned by AOL) was confidently asserting that the King of Pop had passed away.

"We were getting calls from everyone under the sun, established news operations, asking, 'Are you sure?'" Harvey Levin, who runs the site, tells the Los Angeles Times. "That's such an odd question. We would not have published it if it were not true."
Perhaps some of the skepticism had to do with the timing. Jackson's time of death, as pronounced by the coroner, was 2:26 p.m. P.D.T. TMZ's report is time-stamped 5:20 p.m. E.D.T., or 2:20 p.m. on the West Coast -- six minutes before Jackson was pronounced dead.

Did TMZ jump the gun? Or is there some other reason its story was dated before Jackson's official moment of expiration? I've emailed Levin but haven't heard back.

But it wouldn't be the first time a star was prematurely pronounced dead. It wouldn't even be the first time this week: The New York Daily News appeared to post several versions of a story about actress Farrah Fawcett's death before she had been declared dead yesterday, as Gawker noted. Earlier this year, the British magazine OK published a tribute issue dedicated to reality TV star Jade Goody, complete with the years of her lifespan, "1981-2009." That issue, tastefully enough, reached the newsagents while Goody was still alive.

Then there's the flip-side of the phenomenon: A weird rash of rumors, apparently started as pranks, that actors Harrison Ford and Jeff Goldblum had joined Jackson and Fawcett in death yesterday -- and a lame item by gossip blogger Perez Hilton speculating that Jackson's collapse wasn't a true medical emergency, but a hoax. That's the same Hilton, by the way, who "exclusively" reported -- two years ago -- on the death of Fidel Castro.

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