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TMZ rewrites the rules of Hollywood journalism

                is now the hottest
                       Hollywood celeb-
rity gossip Web site on the planet. So
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        TMZ reportedly paid US$62,000. Keith
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Kelly, the Media Ink columnist at the
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        New York Post, is stumped to think
hot, in fact, that when it broke the news                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               of a major story the site has blown.
of Michael Jackson’s death at the end of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “It’s not a massive profit-maker,”
last month, its world exclusive popped                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  says Kelly. “They focus on one thing:
up online six minutes before the singer                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 breaking news, that’s it — and seem
actually died.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          to do it fairly accurately. They have
    For its many critics this was                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       definitely had an impact. I don’t think
confirmation that the Web site, which,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  that Hollywood agents and the power
amid endless surveillance videos of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     structure particularly care for them. In
minor celebs parking their cars and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     some ways, it’s a blessing, you don’t
walking to their front doors, brought                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   have to go and suck up to agents and
you exclusives on Mel Gibson’s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          swap favors for access.”
anti-semitic ravings at a traffic cop,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      When TMZ broke the news of
Alec Baldwin’s brutal mobile phone                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Jackson’s heart attack, but before it
rant at his 11-year-old daughter and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    reported his death, UK news networks
the contents of Anna Nicole Smith’s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     had no problem going big on the story,
bedside table the night she died (Slim                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  even though TMZ was virtually the only
Fast and chewing gum), plays fast and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   source. But US network CNN refused
loose with the truth.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   to report TMZ’s claim that Jackson was
    But for TMZ, the explanation was                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    dead, even though both news outlets
simple. By the time Jackson was                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         are part of the same company.
officially declared dead, at 2:26pm Los                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Levin is certainly hardworking. He
Angeles time on June 25, one of the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     works Web site hours, arriving at the
site’s sources within the corridors of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  office sometimes as early as 6am, and
the UCLA Medical Center (it has a vast                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  has often hit the gym before that. He
network that blankets the city) had                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     wears several hats, cofounder and
already tipped it off.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  editor-in-chief of, executive
    Michael Jackson dead was the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        producer and host of TMZ on TV, the
scoop of a lifetime for any media                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       successful TV show spawned by the
outlet, and the apogee of the four-year-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                site. The offices of TMZ off Sunset
old celebrity-obsessed site that boasts                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Boulevard double as the set of TMZ on
its snippets are “even more fascinating                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 TV. “If you went in there you wouldn’t
than the hype.” In that time, TMZ (the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  find it run by journalists, it is run by
name stands for thirty-mile zone, the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   young guys who know how to put
area of central Los Angeles thickly                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     stuff on the Internet. But they have
populated with stars), which is as                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      broken some very important stories,”
voyeuristic as it is speedy, has become                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 says Smith, whose company is a major
one of the world’s most quoted sources                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  supplier to the site.
of entertainment news, with rival sites,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    TMZ on TV is just like the site. In
TV channels and traditional gossip                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      fact, it is like putting Heat magazine on
columns, such as the New York Post’s                 Michael Jackson and sisters LaToya, left, and Janet greet fans during a lunch break at a pretrial hearing in Santa Maria, California in 2004. TMZ broke news of Michael Jackson’s death six minutes before he actually died.       television. The format is part squawk
infamous Page Six, quoting it regularly.                                                                                                                                                                                                                              PhoTo:reuTerS
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        box, part bull ring. Levin stands in
    And for all that, we have Harvey                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    front of his staff, slurps from a drink
Levin to thank. The well-built, 57-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     bottle, wields a large marker pen and
year-old former lawyer turned TV                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        asks his troops in turn, “What have you

                                                                          TMZ rewrites the rules
journalist is now something of a                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        got?’ Just like a real news conference
celebrity himself, popping up on                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        in any news outlet anywhere. But here
Larry King Live, and a bunch of other                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   the stories are different. Staff report
news magazine shows that dip into                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       on the latest celebrity sitings, often

                                                                         of Hollywood journalism
celebrity content. When actor Natasha                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   with video. “We caught Twilight star
Richardson hit her head while skiing                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Robert Pattinson’s butt cleavage!!”
and suffered fatal brain swelling, Levin,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               “Sam Ronson denies Lindsay Lohan
who founded TMZ, was all over the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       pregnancy rumors, ‘if she is, it ain’t
news channels and appeared to have                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      mine.’” It is a lot of shooting the breeze,
been in touch with paramedics that                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      interspersed with about eight minutes
tended to her. The guy is that good.                               It had the celebrity scoop of the decade when it broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death.                                                                                                                          of content. It is also popular. So much
    A polite way to put it is that Levin                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                so that the Fox TV network, where it
is a man who polarizes opinion.                                            It may be crude, but it’s fast; and now has more power than ever                                                                                                                                     airs every weeknight, is now planning
I’m a Celebrity contestant Janice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       a second TV show. TMZ on TV will
Dickinson called him the lowest form                                                                                                                 By Stephen Brook                                                                                                                   expand with a trial run of a new series
of pond scum, Radar magazine’s                                                                                                                       The Guardian, London                                                                                                               called Beyond Twisted that starts
profile on him was titled Sultan of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     tomorrow. It is billed as an “irreverent
Sleeze, while blogging site Gawker                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      and funny take on jaw-dropping
said he was a “schlocky managing                     member and Jackson’s father, Joe.                       venture between AOL and Telepictures                    to the middle?’ but to their credit they                       It is clear that even before the                    moments from around the world.”
editor of a thieving celebrity news                       Kevin Smith, co-founder of                         Productions, a division of Warner Bros,                 never shut us down.”                                       events of last week, TMZ had changed                        It is possible to see the legacy
conglomerate” and accused him of                     independent news and picture agency                     which produces the Ellen DeGeneres                          There are two opposing schools of                      Hollywood and is starting to change                     of Walter Winchell, the newspaper
filching stories from the Web site                   Splash News, says that while many                       Show and the Tyra Banks Show.                           thought about its success. One, that                       the way the world’s media works.                        gossipmonger who dominated radio
Courthouse News Service and passing                  newspapers and magazines rely on                        Both companies are divisions of Time                    TMZ is founded on good old-fashioned                       In times past other outlets would                       and TV from the 1930s to the 1950s,
them off as their own.                               celebrity content to get sales, but                     Warner. The site is said to cost about                  reporting, wearing out shoe leather in                     attempt to confirm a story themselves                   in what TMZ does. Winchell’s quick-
    For his part, Baldwin said that                  fill their pages with everything from                   US$8 million a year to run, but some                    the finest tradition of Hollywood tip                      before running big on it. But with                      fire radio and TV shows, where
Levin “seemed to be that breed of                    crosswords to horoscopes, TMZ has                       have estimated that it could be worth                   sheets. Two, it gets scoops because it                     TMZ’s scoop last week, Sky News                         he delivered news and gossip,
tabloid creature that realized an almost             just cut down to the bone — celebrity                   up to US$400 million.                                   pays people.                                               in the UK gave it blanket coverage                      accompanied by clattering telexes,
sexual level of pleasure from ruining                is all it supplies. “It is very raw, it is                  The site was profitable after the                       “If you have a story and you want                      very quickly, even though for nearly                    gave him enormous power, and he
other people’s lives.”                               very crude, it’s not polished, but it                   first year, according to Alan Citron,                   to get paid then you call TMZ,” says                       one hour TMZ was the only media                         perfected the use of slang to avoid
    Some rival media outlets so dislike              works. A lot of people look at them                     general manager of from                         Kevin Smith, whose agency is a major                       organization claiming the superstar                     legal disputes, promising his listeners
and distrust TMZ that they didn’t                    with envy and think, ‘Why didn’t we                     just after it launched until late last                  supplier to TMZ.                                           was dead. News companies that                           each week the lowdown on celebrity
report Jackson was dead until it had                 do that?’”                                              year. “TMZ was one of the first                             While this is a practice many                          waited for confirmation, such as CNN                    and politics, “the very very low low
been confirmed by the Los Angeles                         Levin, who gossip sites love to point              sites to redefine celebrity coverage.                   newspapers would not bat an eyelid                         and BBC, were roundly criticized. The                   down down.” But Winchell wasn’t
Times and Associated Press. “That’s                  out is happily partnered to his body-                   When people were setting their web                      over, most traditional US media                            old rules of double sourcing stories                    really into camera-up-skirt content.
typical,” Levin told the Los Angeles                 builder-turned-chiropractor boyfriend,                  bookmarks, TMZ was there. I am a big                    newspapers find this deeply troubling                      appeared to be being rewritten before                   In some ways, TMZ is the National
Times. “No matter what they say,                     trained as a lawyer, but found the lure                 believer in first mover advantage.”                     and refuse to pay for stories. Levin                       our eyes.                                               Enquirer for the Internet age.
people know we broke the story.                      of TV irresistible. He passed his bar                       According to Citron, Levin was a                    admits that the site pays for pictures                         “In many ways, publicists ran                           It is clear that the site now has the
That’s how competitors handle it.                    exam in 1975 and taught law before                      hard taskmaster who would work                          and he also admitted to the New                            Hollywood before we came along,”                        power that Winchell once had. Smith
There’s no issue about our credibility,”             becoming a legal reporter for KCBS-                     all hours. “At the end of the day, he’s                 York Times that he will pay for story                      Levin told Television Week. “They                       waits to see if TMZ can build on its
he added. “Today, I made 100 phone                   TV in Los Angeles, where he covered                     a really good reporter. When he                         tips, but will not pay for unverified                      would set the topics, they would set                    Jackson success. “The problem is, it’s
calls, and everyone else made 100                    the OJ Simpson trial. He later became                   focuses on the story he is likely to                    stories. “There are times when you                         the agenda, they would tell these                       hard to maintain it. The large majority
calls,” Levin said of TMZ’s reporters                a legal analyst on The People’s Court                   beat the competition.”                                  have to pay,” says Smith. “What if                         magazine shows what they could or                       of their stuff is just fluff. I don’t have
the day it broke the Jackson story.                  TV show, before dreaming up his own                         The site, which attracts about 10                   Deep Throat had wanted money                               couldn’t do. The power they had would                   a problem with that because we are
“Everyone blanketed the city.” That                  TV concept, Celebrity Justice. But the                  million unique users a month, created                   and not been acting out of political                       be to say, ‘We won’t give you the                       supplying most of that fluff,” he says.
seems to be true. The Web site has                   show didn’t last; a victim of poor time                 waves at Warner Bros in the early days                  motivations? Richard Nixon would                           interviews you really want, you play                        Keith Kelly sees it as on a mission
sources everywhere: its first reports                slots, it was axed after three years.                   with some of its scoops, according to                   have remained president.”                                  ball with us.’”                                         to expose news that publicists want
about Jackson variously quoted a                          Undeterred, Levin launched TMZ.                    Citron, now president of Buzznet. “I                        Citron is quick to defend their use                        But who needs sit-down interviews                   to keep a lid on. “So in a sense they
cardiologist at UCLA, another source                 com modestly in December 2005 as                        think that there was some nervousness                   of checkbook journalism. “As long as                       with celebrities when you can run a                     are outsiders, which in a sense is what
inside the hospital where the stricken               “a Hollywood and entertainment-                         about that and there were times when                    information is accurate I don’t have a                     harrowing image of pop star Rihanna’s                   journalists should be — they shouldn’t
star was taken, a Jackson family                     centric news site.” It was a joint                      people would go, ‘Can’t you move a bit                  problem with that.’’                                       face after she was beaten up, for which                 be part of the power structure.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                TMZ’S TOP SCOOPS
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ► July 2006
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                A police report obtained by TMZ reveals that Mel Gibson launched an anti-Semitic
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                and sexist tirade at traffic cops when arrested in Malibu for drunk-driving

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ► November 2006
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                TMZ shows mobile phone footage of former Seinfeld star Michael Richards on stage in
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                a comedy club launching a bizarre racist rant at a heckler

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ► April 2007
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                TMZ broadcasts an abusive answering-machine message that Alec Baldwin leaves his
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                daughter, 11, during a custody battle

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ► February 2009
                                                                                                                                                                        Left: Paris Hilton, center, gets up close and           TMZ releases audiotape of Christian Bale going berserk at a crew member on the set
  This snap of Rihanna’s beaten face reportedly cost TMZ US$62,000 to procure.      PhoTo:aP                                                                          personal to Cristiano Ronaldo.                          of Terminator Salvation. Bale gets through 39 “fucks” in four minutes
                                                                                                                                                                        Below left: Mel Gibson hit the bottle and
                                                                                                                                                                        then the headlines.                                     ► February 2009
                                                                                                                                                                        Above: Alec Baldwin took tough love parent-             TMZ posts a shocking photograph of pop singer Rihanna with deep bruises and black
                                                                                                                                                                        ing to a new level.            PhoTo:aPandreuTerS   eyes after she was allegedly assaulted by her boyfriend on the morning of the Grammys

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