The Down And Dirty History Of TMZ
How a lawyer from the San Fernando Valley created a gossip empire
and transformed himself into the most feared man in Hollywood, all by
breaking a few long-held rules and, as rumor has it, lording over a
notorious vault full of secrets.
Anne Helen Petersen
For just $53, you can purchase a guaranteed front-of-the-bus seat on
the TMZ NYC Tour. After stepping on the bus in the middle of Times
Square, a TMZ-trained tour guide — handsome, blond, amiable Australian —
will ask you and the rest of the bus if you’re a huge fan of the show.
You’ll clap; the rest of the bus will roar in agreement. When a tanned,
smiling face shows up on the television screen above your seat, you’ll
be prompted to cheer for “our fearless leader, Harvey!” — and laugh when
the guide promises to show you “all the places where celebrities party
and bone and get diseases.” Here on the bus, you become one of TMZ’s
people — the ones who’ve helped turned a gossip website into a $55 million yearly enterprise.
TMZ tour gives the same experience of a generic Manhattan tour — the
story of Times Square, which, in the guide’s words, “isn’t just home to
1,000 illegal immigrants working as Disney characters”; a quick turn
through the Meatpacking District; a view of Central Park — only
punctuated with landmarks of celebrity significance, introduced with
TMZ’s trademark leering tone. While driving along Broadway: “Ladies, dry
off your seats, James Franco’s on Broadway! And if you’re under 16 on
Instagram, he’s probably tried to have sex with you!” While passing ABC
studios: “Here’s the set of Good Morning America, where Chris Brown is known for his hits!”
through the three-hour tour, the bus stops in SoHo: To the left,
there’s DASH, the Kardashian-branded store; to the right, you can
backtrack to the loft where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a
These two attractions perfectly encapsulate two
of the modes of coverage at which TMZ excels: the frivolous and the
macabre, Celebrity Banality News and Celebrity Death News. But there’s a
third TMZ mode, one that neither the tour nor the TMZ syndicated
program can truly translate. It’s this mode that distinguishes TMZ from
all other celebrity news sites — what gives it teeth or, more
precisely, bite. It’s not the TMZ-employed paparazzi trailing B-listers
at the airport, photos of hot celebrities at the beach, or mugshots of
TMZ’s real engine — what defines its mission,
what legitimizes it and sets it apart — is a unique and controversial
mix of scandal mongering and investigative journalism. But it’s also
that mode that some have claimed is responsible for acquiring a video of
Justin Bieber telling a racist joke and, over the course of four years,
not publishing it.
BuzzFeed spoke to nearly two dozen
former TMZ employees, and it’s clear that Bieber’s tape was not the only
near-priceless piece of dirt in the proverbial TMZ vault. (TMZ did not
respond to multiple requests for comment.) According to these
ex-employees, the sealed testimonies from the Michael Jackson
molestation trial hide there as does footage of various celebrities —
Bieber, Lohan, Travolta — behaving badly. The vault isn’t a secret at
TMZ — even the lowest on the staff ladder have heard whispers of its
existence. As to what goes up on the site and what stays vaulted, that’s
a finer, more esoteric calculus — and one in which celebrities and
their publicists have come to live in fear. As one source explained, “There’s no doubt: [Harvey] Levin absolutely changed the way celebrities function today.”
TMZ has been responsible for breaking the biggest celebrity scandals of the last 10 years: effectively ending a 30-year career (Mel Gibson), tarnishing golf’s most sacred idol (Tiger Woods), and puncturing the pristine image of celebrity royalty (Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z). But it’s not just celebs: In 2009, it caught a bank spending millions of taxpayer bailout funds on a lavish party (Northern Trust), and, via spin-off TMZSports, instigated the $2 billion sale of an NBA team by applying the same surveillance to a racist owner (Donald Sterling) once reserved for the Hollywood stars and socialites.
TMZ, the gossip landscape was predominantly characterized by what those
in the industry call “blow job news” — tidbits and sound bites that
flatter the egos and images of celebrities. But TMZ disrupts that. It
trades in scandal, and revels in exposing the narrative for what it is: a
story as fictional as the films and television shows in which these
stars appear. It didn’t just revise the accepted notion of what “Mel
Gibson” means. It immolated it.
In the first five years of its
existence, TMZ became the new standard not only for scandal mongering
and gossip gathering, but multiplatform brand dominance. But its quest
to become the “future of entertainment news”
seems to have leveled out a bit. According to Quantcast, unique traffic
has increased just 11% over a two-year period (24.48 million to 27.23
million; compare to usmagazine.com, whose unique traffic has increased
156%, from 12.8 million to 32.8 million) and Famous in 12, a TMZ-branded CW series, was canceled after five episodes this summer.
2007, though, TMZ did indeed look like the future. And even if that
status is less certain today, TMZ has been the most influential and
important media organization of the last decade. It’s not in good taste.
It’s brazen, proud of its gaudiness. It’s altered the way that news
about celebrity is treated, spread, and consumed — and earned its place
in a lineage, spanning from Confidential magazine to the National Enquirer, that turns “celebrity gossip” into serious investigative journalism impossible to ignore.
TMZ’s remarkable success and reputation have come at a price, as the
demand to acquire and “own” scoops while simultaneously catering to a
demographic of untraditional (read: straight male)
gossip consumers has transformed a rag-tag group of reporters invested
in illuminating Hollywood hypocrisy into a cabal of ruthless,
click-hungry, and aggressive TMZers with little journalistic training
and a tolerance of misogyny, both within the workplace and on the site
and television show.
TMZ is both better and worse than you thought
it was. In the words of a former staffer, “We built a brand that turned
into a monster that can run on its own.” It’s a well-oiled,
money-making, gossip-generating machine. But has it compromised the
mission that set it apart from the rest of the gossip industry?
answer that question, we have to look closely at the story of TMZ — its
founding narrative, its breakthrough, and, most crucially, its founder —
the man for whom the bus of TMZ acolytes cheered so emphatically.
Because as anyone affiliated with the site will tell you, the story of
TMZ is really the story of Harvey Levin.
Harvey Levin grew up, in the words of one former associate, as a “Jew
nerd from Reseda, Calif.” — in proximity to the glamour of Hollywood,
but definitively excluded from it. He was short, smart, and savvy, and
spent his childhood observing his father, who owned a liquor store,
attempting to avoid selling booze to kids with fake IDs, while the cops
indiscriminately chose when to prosecute and when to look the other way.
According to this confidant, this experience would motivate and
structure Levin’s career, as he worked to expose the hypocrisy of those
in power, whether they be the police, celebrities, or the various
apparatuses that supported and sheltered them. He received a B.A. from
UC Santa Barbara and a J.D. from University of Chicago, passing the
California bar in 1975.
Levin taught law and briefly practiced it, but starting in 1982 began focusing on his media career: He had a legal radio talk show, a column in the Los Angeles Times, and law-related reporting gigs at KNBC and later KCBS,
which is where he was working when the biggest celebrity scandal of the
‘90s broke: the O.J. Simpson trial. He was but one player in the larger
industry that popped up around the trial and its aftermath, but he was
skilled enough — and natural enough on camera — to win the role of host
of the revival of The People’s Court. In 2002, he became the executive producer of Celebrity Justice, but the show only aired for three years.
these pre-TMZ years of Levin’s life, the building blocks of the TMZ
empire are all visible: the obsession with hypocrisy, the keen
understanding of the law, the application to celebrity, the tireless
ambition. Levin was intelligent, but more importantly, he was telegenic,
with the smooth talk of the most practiced lawyer and the charisma of a
television star. After Celebrity Justice was canceled, he began making regular appearances on CNN’s Showbiz Tonight,
but, according to a confidant, he wanted something of his own — which
is why he said yes when Jim Paratore, head of Time Warner-owned
production company Telepictures, approached him with an offer.
Paratore had headed up Telepictures since 1992, putting in place a blockbuster slate of daytime syndicated programming (The Tyra Banks Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show) along with primetime mainstay The Bachelor. But one of Telepictures’ longest-running and most reliable shows was Extra,
an entertainment news program developed in 1994 to provide synergistic
promotion across the sprawling Time Warner media conglomerate. In 2005, Extra
had already been on the air for more than a decade, amassing a trove of
old footage of celebrities, all ready to be recycled and exploited on
Which is exactly what Paratore would have Levin do.
When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000, the idea was to use AOL’s
internet muscle to exploit Time Warner’s media holdings. But the two
companies had very different corporate climates, and struggled to foster
the originally imagined cross-platform synergies. According to Jim
Bankoff, then president of AOL (and current CEO of Vox Media), Bankoff
hit it off with Paratore at a 2005 meeting between AOL and Warner Bros.
executives designed to kindle increased collaboration. Paratore regaled
him with stories of thousands of hours of unused Extra footage —
the perfect candidate for an AOL collaboration. Neither Bankoff nor
Paratore knew what, exactly, they wanted to do with that footage, save
put it on AOL and establish a brand that was something other than “AOL
Celebrity.” That vague, amorphous idea was enough to pique Levin’s
Levin didn’t know anything about the internet and had no
interest in cultivating a web presence. (Multiple sources confirm that
even today, he still uses an AOL email address, and all tweets from his Twitter account
are automatically generated.) But he’d have something approximating
free reign — and the ability to mold the property into something to
finally match his grand vision.
Plus, following the historic
summer of 2005, gossip was percolating at an alarming rate. A cottage
industry of blogs, almost entirely run by women and queer men wholly
outside the industry, were exploiting that interest — most visibly Perez Hilton, but also D-Listed, Lainey Gossip, Pink Is the New Blog, Just Jared
— all of which were proving, to the somewhat startled old guard of
gossipmongers, that the future wasn’t in syndicated television or print,
but online. Constantly updated, dynamic, with a strong authorial voice;
snarky, immediate, and originating outside the carefully cultivated
These bloggers were defined by their outsider status — and their very lack
of access — but that outsider status (and lack of capital) also proved
problematic. Hilton, for example, was sued multiple times — more than
once for copyright infringement. What these bloggers lacked was
infrastructure and capital to expand and bolster their operations, all
while keeping the same all-important outsider ethic.
precisely what an operation housed at Telepictures, with the larger
launching pad of AOL (which, in 2005, still boasted an amplifying power
of 22 million subscribers), could achieve. Levin and Paratore brought
along some staff from Celebrity Justice and Extra,
including eventual TMZ personalities Mike Walters, whose father was an
assistant sheriff in Orange County, and Evan Rosenblum. Rosenblum is son
of former Warner Bros. television chief Bruce Rosenblum, and is also
married to the daughter of People’s Court producer Stu Billett. The official staff eventually numbered a grand total of seven.
site had a sketch of an overarching mission, but it still lacked a name
— according to a former staffer, there’d been a discussion of “Crushed
Candy,” but that was too girly. The name needed to be catchy, different,
and, most importantly, short, so as to better facilitate views via the
burgeoning mobile market. Someone pitched the idea to use “TMZ” —
Hollywood shorthand for the “Thirty Mile Zone,” or “studio zone,” which
historically delineated the boundaries for union-related rates within
the industry and, in branding terms, connoted a mysterious sort of
The only problem? The URL was already taken by an electronics company
that went by the name of Team Minus Zero. According to a staffer from
that time, Levin called the owner up and offered $5,000 for the URL —
but without revealing who he was or what, exactly, the URL was for. The
guy jumped at the offer, but Levin, according to a source, also knew
that if he showed up with the cash in his Porsche, the URL owner would
immediately up the asking price. His solution: Borrow a staff member’s
totally average car. Hand over $5,000 in cash. The URL — and the brand —
On Nov. 9, 2005, TMZ wasn’t even in beta, but it got
its hands on something too big to wait for the official site launch:
footage of the aftermath of a car crash involving Paris Hilton, her
then-boyfriend Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos, Rod Stewart’s
daughter Kimberly, and Laguna Beach star Talan Torriero. Evidence
of celebutante Hilton behaving badly was at a premium, but this was
something bigger: The video showed the Bentley, driven by Niarchos,
crashing into a truck, leaving the site of the crash, nearly hitting a
bystander, and later, once police had pulled the car over, Hilton
blowing a kiss to the officers and saying, “We love the police.”
sent an email blast to the far corners of the American media,
describing the video and noting, at message’s end, “There is no evidence
on tape that the police ever conducted field sobriety tests on the
It was a splashy debut, bearing the hallmarks (video
footage, celebrity shaming, prodding the Los Angeles Police Department)
that would make TMZ famous — even if no one knew what TMZ meant. But it
was a start.
When the beta version of the site went up in mid-November 2005, its
identity was still unclear, packed with a scattershot mix of softball
gossip (“Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey Officially Separating”), trade
news from a full-time industry reporter (“Can ‘Potter’ Save Hollywood
from the Poor House?”), and true pabulum (“Stars Share Their Favorite
Thanksgiving Memories and Plans: They’re Famous and They’re Thankful”).
aesthetics that would go on to define the site are visible even then,
albeit in slightly altered form: At first, yellow was the contrast color
of choice, and would gradually transition to red, white, and black. The
scheme (like both The Smoking Gun and the Drudge Report) is the inverse of pastel-bathed Perez, D-Listed, and Just Jared, as well as the cover schemes of People and Us Weekly. From the start, TMZ was working to cater to a market that it’s cornered today: male consumers, many of whom wouldn’t even consider what they were reading “gossip.” Today, 42% of TMZ’s readership is male; compare that to usmagazine.com (15%) and people.com (11%).
In these ways, TMZ bore a resemblance to another ideologically disruptive publication: Confidential
magazine, which, over the course of the 1950s, exploited and amplified
the anxieties of an American society very much in transition. Confidential’s style not only affected the rest of the gossip industry, but also catalyzed a radical reconceptualization of stars
and the industry that had, to that point, served as the primary source
of the American fantasy world — a description that could readily be
applied to TMZ as well.
Because of laws governing the sale of “obscenity” through the mail, you couldn’t get a subscription to Confidential
— it was sold, along with the other lowbrow publications, at drug
stores and cigarette stands. No reputable company would advertise in it.
But by 1955, it broke the record for single-issue sales, selling 3.7
million copies of its January issue. Confidential
succeeded because it offered something novel, dirty, and unspeakably
sexy: the truth, or at least some rhapsodic version thereof.
Or so it promised, right under its title: “Tells the Facts and Names
the Names.” It told the fact of Liberace’s homosexuality and named the
name “Frank Sinatra” as the man who ate a breakfast of Wheaties in order
to maintain his virility. A magazine like Confidential might
have thrived during any decade, but the cultural climate of the ‘50s
fostered a stream of anxiety-producing issues, including the Red Scare,
the Kinsey reports, and increasingly fraught race relations. Dozens of
publications were reporting on those topics, but Confidential
pressed each hot button vis-à-vis Hollywood stars, politicians, and
socialites. And it was able to — at least in the case of the most
prominent and visible subjects — because of a significant change in the
way that Hollywood managed its stars and their behavior.
intricate history of the studio system’s production of stars is filled
with manipulation, cover-ups, excised histories, and a gossip press
willing to overlook it all as it behooves its own interests. In the
1920s, a series of star-related scandals threatened to expose the
industry to government-imposed censorship; to avoid that fate, the
studios and the press that covered them agreed to a symbiotic
relationship in which one would provide a constant stream of material
about the stars and advertising dollars in exchange for the implicit
understanding that the magazines would not print anything that
contradicted the studio line of stars as moral exemplars. If and when
the stars did misbehave, each studio employed “fixers” to cover up the
evidence (which included bribing cops, paying off mistresses, and
arranging for abortions).
This symbiosis between the film and
gossip industries was only possible because of the monopolizing control
of the major studios, each of which operated as its own factory,
acquiring the “raw” star material, signing them to long-term contracts,
and controlling every facet of the production and management of their
images, from their names to their dating lives. When and if the star
acted out of bounds, he or she was completely beholden to the studio’s
means of covering it up.
What happened in the 1950s, then, and what Confidential
was able to exploit, was a disintegration of that system. The
government-issued Paramount Decrees of 1948 forced the studios to divest
themselves of their theater chains, effectively cutting off one of the
major sources of income at the same time that the suburbs and television
dramatically decreased the movie-going audience. The studios began to
downsize, severely cutting the number of stars on contract.
Many quickly co-opted agents and press agents to perform the image and
career maintenance previously performed by the studios, but the system
of image management was in flux and primed for a magazine to come and
exploit its vulnerability. Which is precisely what Confidential’s
Editor-in-Chief Richard Harrison did, using call girls, bellhops, and a
vast assortment of tipsters to obtain information, relying on signed
affidavits, private investigators, and twisty, punning language to avoid
charges of libel and obscenity.
Harrison used candid photos
and amateurish decoupage tactics to suggest what couldn’t be said; he
manipulated headlines and punctuation to achieve maximum titillation.
The aesthetic was all primary colors — bold, in-your-face — the exact
opposite of the genteel, appealing aesthetic of the fan magazines to
which he offered such a clear alternative in style, tone, and purpose.
was effectively neutralized in 1957 after a series of (ultimately
unsuccessful) libel trials that exhausted Harrison’s resources. But the
damage was done: With the “truth” about the stars exposed, it was
increasingly difficult for the fan magazines to continue to suggest them
as paragons of morality. Thus: the “scandalization” of the traditional
gossip press — evidenced in the increasing reliance on paparazzi photos —
that echoed Confidential’s brash approach.
Which is all to say that TMZ has precedent and, more important, its
tactics are nothing new. They’re accelerated for the digital age, but
they’re operating on the same principle and profiting off the same
impulse to excavate down to the deepest, “truest” level of the popular
figures that surround us.
Harrison and Levin both developed a
publication around their personalities and attempted to imprint their
sensibilities as broadly as possible. Both were incredibly savvy about
the law and the way to wield it in their favor; both relied heavily on
the seemingly human impulse to trade secrets for money; both understood
that secrets about race and sexuality, especially female sexuality, are
the most effective ways to draw an audience.
And both, it seems, were not above leveraging the contents of their
figurative vaults: Harrison had ample evidence of Hollywood heartthrob
Rock Hudson’s homosexual activity and was primed to publish it — or, in
style, heavy insinuations thereof — but Hudson’s
agent, Henry Willson, arranged a deal in which Hudson’s image would be
salvaged in exchange for information about the illicit juvenile
delinquent past of another of Wilson’s clients, Rory Calhoun.
this vantage point, it seems like an unbalanced trade, but Harrison
knew what else he’d purchased with the deal: continual leverage, not
only with Hudson but any of Willson’s stable of young, virile, seemingly
very hetero (yet often homosexual) stars. He didn’t want exclusives or
interviews with those stars — that wasn’t Confidential’s game. He
wanted tip-offs from them. A tit for a tat; a secret kept for a secret
told. It was dubious moral algebra, but it was ruthlessly effective and
presaged the way TMZ has maintained power.
It’s not that there’d be no TMZ without Confidential;
rather, the landscape of contemporary publicity is a palimpsest of all
the crises and cover-ups that have come before. After the tumult of the
post-Confidential years, Hollywood responded with the sort of
iron-tight, exacting image control typified by Pat Kingsley’s immaculate
management of Tom Cruise’s career before he started jumping on Oprah’s
couch. The stars were contained, they went wild, and then they were
contained again — until, that is, the internet and digital technologies
sprung leaks in the once air-tight system of image management.
of which was beginning to percolate in 2005–2006, both on the various
independent gossip blogs and the nascent form of TMZ, which was
beginning, ever so gradually, to develop a voice. The key, however,
wasn’t specific content, but tone and philosophy. It wasn’t what TMZ
covered so much as what it didn’t cover: no weddings, no red carpets — nothing, in other words, that had been managed.
Levin was fond of telling his staff, “We don’t do agenda” — and those
who tried to do just that (cowing to a publicist, hobnobbing with a
star) would be put on notice. According to a source, when TMZ ran a
Beyoncé story and Mathew Knowles called to get it taken down, it blew
him off. When Knowles then called AOL, it also blew him off. And unlike
other gossip organizations, whose content was predicated on future
access to Beyoncé, it could afford to do so. (According to multiple
sources, the only coverage TMZ steered clear of was anyone, like Ellen
DeGeneres, involved in Telepictures productions; other Time Warner
properties were, however, fair game).
TMZ had the freedom of an
independent operation, the savvy of decades of investigative reporting,
the connections of more than 20 years in the Los Angeles court system,
and the backing of a major conglomerate.
It was terrifying. The celebrities just didn’t know it yet.
Because this was all before July 28, 2006, when Mel Gibson was pulled
over in the early morning hours for driving under the influence. As
former staffers recalled, at 11 a.m., TMZ received a tip concerning the
arrest. No specifics; just, there’s something there. The official
police statement was that he had been arrested “without incident.” Yet
as Levin and his staff, which had grown to nearly 20, began to pursue
the story, there were conflicting reports, and whispers of an
Gibson’s booking photo after being pulled over in the early morning hours for driving under the influence on July 28, 2006. Wireimage
The police insisted otherwise: As Levin told Broadcasting & Cable
in 2012, the police told TMZ, “You will destroy your operation if you
put that up on your website, because it’s false.” But the staff pushed
and pushed, eventually confirming the existence of an arrest
confirmation through a copy of the full police report. “We sold our
souls to Warner’s legal to get it on the site,” recalls one staffer. By 9
p.m., the report, including vivid descriptions of Gibson’s
belligerence, the use of the phrase “sugar tits,” and his claim that
“the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” went live.
(Four years later, RadarOnline
ran damning audio of him seething about wanting “Jew blood on my hands” — essentially scooping TMZ on threats purportedly directed toward Levin
and snuffing out a potential comeback.)
the Hilton footage and Gibson arrest report as TMZ’s two most visible
scoops, it’d be easy to assume that its primary objective was simply
finding incriminating footage. But again, according to multiple sources,
TMZ didn’t go after Gibson just because he drove drunk, or even
necessarily because he was an anti-Semite. It was because the police
attempted to cover it up. According to several of his staffers at the
time, Levin was driven to tirelessly pursue these scoops by a desire to
dismantle the unspoken but elaborate system that exempted the
high-powered and beautiful of Hollywood from the rules to which the rest
of the world were held. Levin had spent nearly 30 years observing the
system — cops, judges, prosecutors, juries — allow the beautiful,
wealthy, and powerful to misbehave, sometimes with total impunity. TMZ
was his opportunity to right those wrongs.
It’s an admirable
philosophy. And it does, in some ways more superficial than others,
remain the guiding ethos of the TMZ operation today. But even constant
digging doesn’t mean that you’ll find anything dirty — slightly dusty,
maybe, but not the sort of pay dirt that revises the way society thinks
about one of its idols. There were subsequent scoops, but the site had
to run content all day, every day.
Over the course of the fall of 2006, reader preferences (measured via
clicks) helped hone the pointy, aggressive tone that characterizes the
site today. The more vanilla, People
-esque coverage of celebrity
goings-on began to disappear. In its place: exclamation marks, puns, and
dirty jokes. If before, TMZ had adopted the flat, journalistic tone of The Smoking Gun
then, over the course of 2006, it adopted the tone of a tabloid —
especially when covering its own exclusives. A sampling of headlines:
From Oct. 3, “Screech Sex Tape Partners — Exposed
!!!” From Nov. 9: “Borat Lawsuit — High Five
!!!” From Dec. 19: “Brody’s Looking Grody!
voice coalesced via multiple channels. Some of it was Levin’s — as a
former overseer at AOL explained, he might not have understood exactly
how the internet worked, but he absolutely understood how to write a
headline. Headlines began to feature more puns, exclamation marks, and
innuendo; content became incrementally harsher, meaner, crueler.
shift had easily anticipated effects: First, several of those brought
in to launch the site began to find the requisite compromise of their
integrity increasingly troublesome. For one former employee, the last
straw was when Levin demanded that a headline refer to a celebrity’s
sister, who had a history as a sex worker, as a “whore.” Others,
unaccustomed to Levin’s management style (described by one former
employee as one of “constant screaming”) wearied of his constant
antagonism and bullying. As the site grew, so too did the imperative to
produce original scoop ideas. June 2009 brought the site its biggest
scoop yet, breaking the news of Michael Jackson’s death, much to the horror of traditional news outlets.
before the TV show made the TMZ “morning meeting” famous, the staff
would circle around Levin, standing at a white board, and go around the
circle with their pitch/tip/idea for a story. Every employee was
responsible for one; if someone took your idea before you did, you were
screwed; after enough screwups, you were done.
In the early years
of the site, the work day was punishing — staff was expected to be up
and at a computer for East Coast hours (6 a.m. PT) and work well into
the night; 14-hour days were the norm. The windows in the Los Angeles
office were blacked out — “like working in a submarine,” according to
one staffer — and during winter, a TMZer could easily go the entire day
without seeing the sun. Low-level staffers were compelled to constantly
hunt for leads, no matter how small, only to give it over and have
someone else pen the story, with your investigative work wholly elided, a
simple “TMZ Staff” affixed to the post. It was a highly alienating form
of journalistic labor, and the turnover rate was high: Even a quick
search of LinkedIn shows dozens of employees who stayed with TMZ for
under a year; one source explained that dozens more would come for a
one-week tryout and flame out immediately.
But Levin could afford
turnover. Those who survived, thrived. And “preditors” (the industry
term for producer-editors responsible for finding content) were easy to
find and cheap to replace: They didn’t need journalistic training, they
just needed wherewithal, ambition, and the ability to not take no for an
answer. When they burned out, Levin would force them to hand over their
source information, sometimes hounding them for weeks until they did.
It wasn’t that this sort of schedule or leadership was a novelty in
Hollywood, or even in journalism. But the combination of intraoffice
competition and the shift to tabloid-style content gradually began to
affect the office atmosphere — especially for women.
If the filler kept the site filled with content, then the
“exclusives” were what made the name pop — and, month by month, offered
more and more legitimation. Those scoops, however, required hard,
tireless work: staking out courthouses, following up on every call on
the tip line, keeping friendly with bellhops and cocktail waitresses and
hairdressers, and maintaining a reputation as the place to send a tip anywhere outside of New York.
of the scoops just arrived: Mike Walters, who had been with the show
from the start, loved Vegas and spent a lot of his free time there.
According to one employee there at the time, it was through Vegas
connections, specifically cocktail waitresses, that TMZ gained knowledge
of Tiger Woods’ myriad affairs months before the car crash that
catalyzed his image implosion. Tipsters could be inside the legal
system, inside an airline,
or inside the celebrity family (Jackson and Lohan in particular).
Everyone was a potential source, ready to be groomed and, if necessary,
“Checkbook journalism” — paying for scoops — is, at least
according to traditional American journalism standards, unethical: The
truth should never be paid to come forward. These critiques have been
launched at tabloids for decades, but money remains the most reliable
form of obtaining material about celebrities.
“I have no problem paying,” Levin told Broadcasting & Cable
in 2013, “but we hardly do it at all. If someone calls and says, ‘I
have gone through court files in a certain city and there’s a big
lawsuit in which you’d be interested,’ I don’t mind paying them for
their work. But we have to verify every story that we do.” But that
defense, according to former employees, downplays just how willing TMZ
is to throw money at promising documents. It’s a critique often
leveraged by the media; Mediabistro has lambasted “the overall operation’s reliance on cash payments for big stories.”
November 2006, for example, a source came forward with the recording of
the Michael Richards racist comedy routine. The source wanted several
thousand dollars for the tape, and TMZ would pay it, but the source
wanted the cash immediately — as in before-the-banks-opened immediately.
Levin couldn’t write a personal check and allow the money to be traced
back to him, and he, like everyone else, had a limit on the amount of
cash he could take out in a single day from the ATM. His solution,
according to multiple staffers working for the site at the time: Call
every TMZ staffer and force them to immediately take out their ATM max
and bring it down to the TMZ offices. The staffers were reimbursed, but
the story highlights just what lengths TMZ was willing to go to obtain —
and pay — a source.
Indeed, several investigative reporters who
cover the Los Angeles courthouse speculated that TMZ has dozens of
government employees on its payroll. These claims lack substantiation,
but several scoops — including access to the evidence photos of
Rihanna’s beaten face or footage of rapper The Game in police holding,
which one misguided staffer purportedly attempted to pay for with a
Telepictures check — suggest that those within the system do regularly
send tips to TMZ. Although Levin, for what it’s worth, has promised, “I won’t do stolen documents, I won’t do medical records.”
TMZ scoops linked to government employees, however, have led to multiple wide-scale internal investigations. In 2010, longtime Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman Alan Parachini was very publicly fired amid rumors
that he had been caught accepting regular bribes from TMZ that
intensified when, in 2008, he hired former TMZer Vania Stuelp to serve
as his deputy. Parachini contested his firing, but the optics,
especially when Stuelp lost her job in a series of layoffs and returned
to TMZ, were damningly suggestive.
Levin’s claims concerning the intensive vetting and verification of
scoops are, by most accounts, true. TMZ, with the sizable and highly
suable bank of Time Warner behind it, simply cannot afford to be wrong. Which is why TMZ relies so heavily on assets: tangible proof that something did happen, that someone did behave this way. It’s not libel, after all, if it’s true.
to sources, TMZ writers go back and forth with in-house counsel several
times a day, exchanging a word here, extracting another one there, in
order for a headline or post to pass the standard for libel and
defamation set forth by the landmark Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan.
And it’s worked: At the time of this writing, TMZ has never been
successfully sued for libel or defamation. (Which is not to say its
reporting has been infallible: The site retracted a 2012 story about Janet Jackson slapping Paris Jackson and claimed that Lil Wayne was being read last rites after an overdose last year.)
The reluctance to sue, however, is also linked to “The Streisand Effect”
— a term used to describe the way in which attempts to cover up a
secret ultimately end up publicizing it even more. Put differently,
going to the police to stop TMZ from using a video, photo, or other
piece of information becomes tantamount to publicizing that activity.
to this logic, a celebrity would rather be in thrall to TMZ than have
certain revelations of their private lives made public — a notion
substantiated by Justin Bieber’s racist video. A look at TMZ’s extensive
Justin Bieber archive reveals that on Jan. 24, 2011, the site published
a year-old video
of Bieber, taken at the approximately the same time as the racist joke
video, phoning his mom to plead for permission to buy a helicopter. From
that point forward, TMZ specialized in Bieber-related “exclusives”: on
Feb. 6, an image of his Super Bowl cameo; on Feb. 21, Bieber phones into TMZ to talk about his much-anticipated haircut; on Feb. 22, TMZ publishes the first photos, heavily watermarked with the TMZ logo, of Bieber post-haircut. On May 13, exclusive details of his collaboration with President Obama to make a 9/11 orphan’s “dreams come true.” On July 11, exclusive video of Bieber and girlfriend Selena Gomez kissing during karaoke; on July 18, exclusive footage of them crashing a wedding; on Aug. 24, exclusive details of the “most romantic date ever” — a private dinner for two at Staples Center.
The list of exclusives extends for pages, suggesting a close collaboration between TMZ and Bieber’s management. According to TMZ, it chose
not to post the video because Bieber “was 15” and “immediately told his
friends what he did was stupid.” The statement does mesh with TMZ’s
self-regulatory practices; as Harvey Levin put it
in 2008, “Everybody has standards. That’s something that really matters
to us and we deal with that every day. We turn down a lot of stories.”
Maybe so. But as the trail of Bieber exclusives suggests, it might also
get something in return.
TMZ also exploits a mostly untapped
resource: the massive stream of court documents processed through the
Los Angeles Court System. If you go to the ninth floor of the Los
Angeles courthouse and know where to look, you’ll find the door to the
“press room,” dingy, with an overpowering smell of old flop sweat, and
stuffed with dilapidated vinyl couches, cheap office furniture, and
There’s a line of computers with various
“Reserved for” signs tacked above, a room for the Associated Press, and
another for TMZ, where a group of staffers scan every docket that passes
through the court system. It’s through these staffers’ endless labor
that TMZ is able to beat the rest of the industry to report who’s filed a
restraining order, a name change, for divorce, or a suit against
a star. This information isn’t hidden, and it’s not exclusive to TMZ —
but the willingness to bankroll that labor ensures the branding status
Owning the source — either by paying for it in the
form of tips or paying the videographer who catches it — also sets TMZ
apart from its competitors. Instead of relying on paparazzi — whom TMZ
would have to pay on a sliding scale contingent on the quality/value of
the material — with little, if any, sense of site loyalty, they hired
their own paparazzi, some more professional than others. What mattered
in the rough-and-tumble game of mid-2000s paparazzi, however, wasn’t
skill so much as tenacity, which is why one of Levin’s hires purportedly
came from the parking lot of a gas station, where he was hocking CDs
with such persistence that Levin knew he’d make a perfect TMZ pap.
paparazzi aren’t investigative reporters. Their only goal: Get
celebrities on tape however you can without chasing them or breaking the
law. They specialize not in photographs but video, no matter how
unremarkable. In the early days, they’d set up shop at the hot clubs of
the time (Pure, LAX) and simply wait for drunk celebrities to come out
and engage them — which is exactly how TMZ nabbed the incendiary footage of oil and entertainment heir Brandon Davis calling Lindsay Lohan a “fire crotch.”
at the TMZ offices, an editor would be waiting to assemble the night’s
footage into a sort of “greatest hits,” which would go up on the website
in time for the East Coast sunrise. The “fire crotch” video was an
anomaly — most footage was simply of celebrities walking, maybe
stumbling, verbally (and not very cleverly) sparring with the
videographer — but back in the mid- and even late 2000s, this sort of
unmediated footage was a novelty. Granted, many readers, especially
those relying on AOL dial-up, couldn’t even load it. But its existence
punctured the celebrity myth not through the scandal of their words or
actions, but the very banality of their existence. It was a quietly
radical idea: Celebrities weren’t “just like us,” in fact, they were
more clumsy, less intelligent, more boring.
The reliance on video also facilitated the development of TMZ on TV. Like Telepictures sibling Extra, TMZ was developed for syndication and, through an agreement with the Fox network of affiliates, pre-sold in an unprecedented 80% of American stations. Its first episode aired in September 2007; by month’s end, it had become the highest-rated new show in syndication, with a 1.7 household rating, second only to Entertainment Tonight in its genre. Today, TMZ is still second to ET — and regularly battles for the second place spot with Inside Edition — but remains, according to Broadcasting & Cable, dominant in the all-important 18–34 demo.
And it does it on the cheap, with production values that The Atlantic’s James Parker called
“low-res, viral, sh*t-textured.” Each episode is composed of two
overarching elements: paparazzi footage, which could be shot, edited,
and added to the show right up to the last minute using TMZ’s cutting
edge “instant production”
and the now much-emulated morning meeting, in which the ever-expanding
TMZ staff, seated casually at their desks, spar with Levin concerning
In these meetings, Levin functions as a sort of hapless, middle-aged father figure who might not understand things like Google Glass,
but knows the business better than anyone. And he’s been smart enough
to surround himself with people whose vitality match and complement his
own: Co-producer Charles Latibeaudiere, who came over from years at Extra
to co-produce the show, is the voice of reason; Mike Walters and Dax
Holt are the benevolent big brothers; the rotating carousel of young
staffers are the whippersnappers fighting each other to say something
clever enough to make the final cut. Even the lawyers get in on the mix,
discussing which stories can be covered, how, and with what language.
It’s all performative, of course, but the unmediated “reality”
aesthetics make it seem like a window onto the “real” world of gossip
The main show may be the means through which most of
America is exposed to the TMZ brand, but the site remains the central
node for all of the properties, from the TMZ-branded tours of New York
and Los Angeles to brand offshoots TMZ Sports, Dax Chat, and TMZLive.
The TMZ team was the first entity to successfully transfer web content
to television, illustrating a cross-media savvy and dexterity that has
earned unreserved admiration within the industry. As New York Times media critic David Carr put it, “TMZ is one of the best written, best cast shows on television. There. I said it.”
of Levin suggest that he’s driven far less by a desire for personal
fame and much more by a generalized, all-encompassing hunger: to be the
best, to dominate the industry, to prove his naysayers wrong. He’s a man
of extremes (in the ‘90s, he was overweight; today, he’s incredibly
fit, doesn’t drink, sleeps four hours a night, and looks younger than
his 63 years). Former employees describe him as a “mad genius,” “all
fast-twitch muscle,” and “like he’s taking the blue pills in Bourne Identity.”
And it’s that metabolism and bottomless hunger that’s manifested in the
site: When people call it all-consuming, they’re both referring to its
domination of its corner of the gossip landscape and the way it
dominates the lives of its employees, including Levin himself.
Yet in the quest for domination, TMZ itself has become a source of gossip. Back in 2010, a blind item
began circulating via Metafilter concerning an environment of pervasive
sexual harassment at “a huge trashy entertainment news website with a
three-letter name.” The allegation slowly faded away, only slightly
inflamed by observations from Forbes and FishbowlNY that TMZ was a “boy’s club” and a “male zone.” But in May 2013, former TMZer Catherine “Taryn” Hillin filed suit
against TMZ executive producer Evan Rosenblum for gender
discrimination, claiming she was told by multiple employees that “TMZ
hates women” and favors male employees and alleging that Rosenblum
“routinely yelled at and humiliated” her, calling her “f—-ing sh*t” and
telling her, “I f—-ing hate this sh*t you hand in” and, “Don’t be a
Regarding the atmosphere of generalized sexism and
discrimination described in the suit, male and female TMZ employees,
none of whom were willing to go on the record, reported that it was all
true, if not worse. (Two other former employees agree that it’s a toxic
environment while averring that every newsroom is toxic.)
according to one source, is “one of those gay men who’s just never been
able to get along with women.” He’s stacked his organization with young, bro-ish men who help make the tone and feel of the website masculine and definitively non-gay. It’s not that Levin’s homophobic — he’s spoken openly
about triumphing over his fears of being outed in his early career, and
how he’s operated as a gay man in the contemporary mediascape — so much
as he’s savvy as to the ways in which any hint of effeminacy on the
site could repel the target demographic. Cloaked misogyny, in other
Which is why it’s so difficult to reconcile the
site’s incredible innovation, even brilliance, with its alleged gender
politics. But it’s equally difficult to pinpoint the source of those
politics: As readers clicked at higher rates on posts with a misogynist
bent, they effectively encouraged a generalized editorial mode that
gradually seeped and/or validated a posture of sexism and degradation
toward women. Put differently, it’s difficult to write a headline like
“‘French Montana DROPS A LOAD on Khloe for 30th Birthday” and a slideshow of “Celebrity Butterface” without propagating an office culture that endorses the same gender politics.
something to say, however, about the masculinization of gossip and the
legitimacy it offers. Yes, TMZ trucks in “fact” instead of speculation;
legal documents are “hard” evidence as opposed to the “soft” conjecture
of thinking about which celebrities are dating, and why and how we feel
about that. TMZ has not only cornered an alternative gossip market, but
also inflamed it. Readers and viewers are not only attracted to its
voice, but emulate it themselves, whether in comments, in conversation,
or in call-ins.
It’s easy to look back at Confidential and
think about the ways in which its mission, so degraded at the time,
anticipated and even encouraged the more progressive, truthful, and
emancipatory truths from stars concerning their sexual activities and
preferences in the decades to come. But the fact remains that in the
1950s, the text itself was rancid, even hateful; the reason it was
“scandalous” was, at least in part, because millions of readers would
deem the described activities — whether fornicating with a person of the
same sex or a different race or, if you were a woman, just pleasuring
in sex at all — as worthy of censure.
Like Confidential, TMZ strays from censoring any celebrities itself; like Confidential,
it claims to simply tell the facts and name the names. And while the
impulse to demystify and deconstruct the celebrity images that propagate
restrictive understandings of what “normal” or “beautiful” are is,
indeed, admirable, it’s difficult to endorse organizations that can only
wield equally destructive language and editorial ethos in order to
accomplish those aims.
Back in 2008, Levin defended the site,
claiming, “What we’re doing is not the fall of Western civilization.
Celebrities are just people who other people invest in.” He’s right:
Celebrity is, indeed, as old as organized civilization itself.
But the mode, tone, and matter in which celebrities are mediated
absolutely influence the type payoff received from that celebrity
investment. Ultimately, we have to look at TMZ and decide for ourselves:
How much is one Donald Sterling takedown worth, and how many “Lupita Nyong’o: 12 Years a Babe” headlines should we tolerate to fund it?