Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Ever since pollsters got the 2016 election so very wrong (and the 2020 one pretty wrong, too), I’ve taken public opinion surveys with a grain of salt. As of late, however, I’ve discovered one polling source I trust and believe with all my heart: TMZ’s weekly online survey, “Stars and Scars—You Be the Judge.” Every Saturday the gossip blog, which was recently purchased by the Murdoch family, posts a series of questions about the news of the week and invites its readers to weigh in on the answer. The queries range from “Ben and Jen … married by year’s end or never getting married (29 percent say they’ll get hitched, 71 percent disagree )” to “If we don’t do something about climate change … the world will end ( 56 percent) or the world will go on (44 percent).”
The way I see it, TMZ readers are the 21st-century version of supermarket-tabloid consumers — the real, true heart of America. (Coastal elites, for the most part, are not TMZ diehards.) Around 80 percent of the publication’s traffic is domestic, per Similarweb — and even though celebrity-gossip consumption tends to skew female, the site features robust sports coverage, which brings in a male audience. I would guess that the average TMZ reader is younger than the average American, but you can’t have everything.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Is TMZ’s data-gathering really more reliable than a stalwart like Pew? I couldn’t say for certain, but I believe it is at least as trustworthy. Let’s look at the August 8, 2020, edition of “Stars and Scars,” which asked readers if they would get a COVID vaccine. Sixty-five percent of readers answered “Yes, Yes, Yes!!!” while the other 35 percent opted for “No, No, No!!!” A seemingly more respectable poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation during that time period found that 63 percent of Americans said they would get vaccinated. Fast-forward to the present day, and the CDC says that 64 percent of Americans 12 and older are fully vaccinated. On July 24, 2021, 50 percent of TMZ’s audience said they thought Joe Biden’s first six months in office was a “big success.” Gallup calculated that Biden’s approval rating was 50 percent in July of this year.
It’s true that “Stars and Scars” participants seem to be mostly anti-Trump: 67 percent of readers said they voted for Biden in the most recent election. But that doesn’t mean the readership necessarily skews to the left on all matters. In May, for example, when asked “Whose side you on?” 58 percent of readers chose Israel over Palestine. Another “Stars and Scars” found that 41 percent of readers have a gun at home. (Gallup found similar numbers among all Americans.) The majority of TMZ polltakers do not want to defund the police, are not interested in having a gay bachelorand hate, hate, hate cancel culture, though they are strongly in favor of canceling Chrissy Teigen.
The real brilliance of “Stars and Scars” is that it poses questions the serious folks over at, say, Monmouth are too afraid to ask. I’m happy to have good data on what percentage of people think Dog the Bounty Hunter saying he has an “N-word pass” is “ridiculous BS” (86), and what percentage believe Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide (only 33 percent) versus the number who think he was murdered (67 percent). It is also important to note that despite participating in a weekly public opinion poll, TMZ’s audience is properly dubious of the practice itself. In October 2020, when asked about polls showing “Biden winning big,” only 32 percent of people believed that to be accurate, while the other 68 percent responded, “remember 2016, people.”
I firmly believe in the veracity of TMZ’s polling, but I also turn to “Stars and Scars” for comfort; the majority opinion there is more often on the right side of history than not. Most readers believe that Amy Coney Barrett’s SCOTUS nomination should have been blocked and that Breonna Taylor’s killers should stand trial for her death by her. They might not be on Palestine’s side, but they are totally cool with Ben & Jerry’s boycotting Israel. Moreover, “Stars and Scars” reminds me that even though the pandemic is horrible and seems never-ending, most people are coping just fine: A majority of readers report that their mental state is “stable” and that COVID made their relationships stronger, despite the dozens of think pieces telling us otherwise. This sure beats reading an Ipsos/Reuters poll telling us that six in ten Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, or a Quinnipiac survey that found 74 percent of Republicans think that “too much is being made of the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th and it is time to move on.” Rather than depress us, “Stars and Scars” assures us that the world is actually doing okay. And it can act as a guide, too. Next time the Democrats on Capitol Hill are debating whether they should be taxing folks like Jeff Bezos, they should look to the August 14 “Stars and Scars,” which found that a mere 42 percent of those surveyed “respect billionaires,” while the other 58 percent absolutely hate them. Who said TMZ wasn’t civically responsible?