When I think of standard bearers for the rights and dignity of people of short stature, I don't think of TMZ, the celebrity-gossip website and television program launched by Harvey Levin.
Yet, I've always somewhat admired TMZ. On an entertainment level, I like it because the reporters don't seem to take themselves to seriously and poke fun at each other as often as they poke fun at the situations they cover. On another level, the program was ahead of the curve on language issues relating to little people. I have no statistics to prove this, but I feel cultural awareness around the word 'midget' reached a critical mass in 2009 or 2010. Since that critical mass, the word still is used, but there is a common understanding that use of the word offends large numbers of people.
Even before the word reached its critical mass of awareness, TMZ went out of its way not to use the word, and sometimes even called out celebrities who used the word. This is particularly impressive of a celebrity gossip show. In my opinion, tabloid television, stand-up comedians, radio shock jocks, and throngs of young hulligans in bars pose the greatest threat of delivering offensive language, whether it be offensive to little people or other minority groups.
With that in mind, when I come across episodes of TMZ, in certain segments, I still expect to hear the word 'midget.' That happened today as I watched part of an episode. After a segment about Sharon Stone, one of the TMZ reporters transitioned in a segment about his encounter with "mini Mr. T,"- a little person who dresses up like Mr. T. I watched the segment, waiting for someone in the gang of reporters at the TMZ office to drop the m-word. But it didn't happen. In fact, the discussion at the office even became political. On camera, Mini Mr. T told the TMZ reporter he was available to rent for parties. He also commented that St. Patrick's Day is a good time of year because many parties rent out little people as Leprechauns. Back at the TMZ office, Levin and the other reporters questioned the morality of hiring individuals for entertainment just because they are physically different.
I don't want to hold up TMZ as a beacon of morality. At times, the segment dripped with condescension and one reporter's anti-Semitic joke was not edited out. But I can't help but be pleased when a tabloid reporter delivers the line, "That's why it feels wrong because you are renting someone based on the way they were born."