The American news media is carrying out a fresh round of soul-searching after the most respected showbusiness broadcaster was forced to retract the "scoop" of the year, when it wrongly reported the arrival of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's twins.
A police investigation is under way into the identity of a hoaxer who apparently misled Entertainment Tonight into announcing, incorrectly, that Jolie had given birth. The story, which ran last Friday, was first followed up, then ridiculed around the world.
To an industry reeling from widespread staff cutbacks, redundancies and the Jayson Blair scandal – in which The New York Times reporter was caught fabricating events and interviews – the affair is raising uncomfortable questions. Entertainment Tonight prides itself on setting a "gold standard" in the mercurial world of showbusiness reporting.
Sources at CBS, makers of the programme for 27 years, say Jolie's "new arrival" was first reported on its website during the afternoon of 30 May, after the producer, Sharlette Hambrick, received an email tip from an individual purporting to be the actress's assistant, Holly Goline.
Although it was formally denied to CBS by Jolie and Pitt's spokesman, Mary Hart repeated it on that night's programme: "Just this morning, a source who says she was inside the delivery room tells us that yes, the babies were born and yes, mother and babies are fine."
Despite mounting evidence that Jolie was still pregnant, and Pitt's decision to circulate a legal warning to selected news outlets, Entertainment Tonight stuck by its story until Tuesday, when its website issued a correction.
"Entertainment Tonight takes this very seriously, and is, of course, concerned that the show may have been victimised by someone allegedly posing as a member of Ms Jolie's team," it read. "We are actively investigating the matter and are reaching out for law enforcement agencies."
The scandal highlights growing pressure on news outlets, particularly in showbusiness, to be first with the news. The rise of the internet means that millions of dollars can now hinge on breaking eagerly anticipated stories about stars.
"When a story is about to break concerning the most famous couple in the world, even talking about them will generate millions of hits, so there's huge pressure to get the stories," said Sheeraz Hassan, founder of the internet TV channel Hollywood.tv. "But people only go to websites they trust. So when you break that story you've got to be sure you are right; your whole market value depends on it."
Unconfirmed reports have since claimed that bidding for the first officially sanctioned photographs of Jolie's new children has already broken the $10m barrier. Her pregnancy has obsessed Hollywood ever since a friend, the actor Jack Black, accidentally told an interviewer that she was expecting twins.
Celebrity baby stories have also proved hazardous for British news outlets. In Piers Morgan's memoir of his editorship of the Daily Mirror, he recalled his horror at running a front page greeting Sir Paul McCartney's new baby with the headline: "It's a Boy!" The next day, the singer announced that he'd named his new daughter Beatrice.
The embarrassment for Entertainment Tonight – which has 6.5 million viewers, more than twice its nearest rival – was compounded by the fact that the actress previously said she was not due until August. To make matters worse, quotes surfaced from an interview that Linda Bell Blue, the show's executive producer, gave to the trade paper TV Week in 2004: "Entertainment Tonight can never afford to be wrong. If that means we're not first on a story, then we won't be first. We need to make sure it is right."Reuse content