Sun, Jul 05, 2009 - Page 13 News List

TMZ rewrites the rules of Hollywood journalism

It had the celebrity scoop of the decade when it broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death.It may be crude, but it’s fast; and now has more power than ever

By Stephen Brook  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

VIEW THIS PAGE is now the hottest Hollywood celebrity gossip Web site on the planet. So hot, in fact, that when it broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death at the end of last month, its world exclusive popped up online six minutes before the singer actually died.

For its many critics this was confirmation that the Web site, which, amid endless surveillance videos of minor celebs parking their cars and walking to their front doors, brought you exclusives on Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic ravings at a traffic cop, Alec Baldwin’s brutal mobile phone rant at his 11-year-old daughter and the contents of Anna Nicole Smith’s bedside table the night she died (Slim Fast and chewing gum), plays fast and loose with the truth.

But for TMZ, the explanation was simple. By the time Jackson was officially declared dead, at 2:26pm Los Angeles time on June 25, one of the site’s sources within the corridors of the UCLA Medical Center (it has a vast network that blankets the city) had already tipped it off.

Michael Jackson dead was the scoop of a lifetime for any media outlet, and the apogee of the four-year-old celebrity-obsessed site that boasts its snippets are “even more fascinating than the hype.” In that time, TMZ (the name stands for thirty-mile zone, the area of central Los Angeles thickly populated with stars), which is as voyeuristic as it is speedy, has become one of the world’s most quoted sources of entertainment news, with rival sites, TV channels and traditional gossip columns, such as the New York Post’s infamous Page Six, quoting it regularly.

And for all that, we have Harvey Levin to thank. The well-built, 57-year-old former lawyer turned TV journalist is now something of a celebrity himself, popping up on Larry King Live, and a bunch of other news magazine shows that dip into celebrity content. When actor Natasha Richardson hit her head while skiing and suffered fatal brain swelling, Levin, who founded TMZ, was all over the news channels and appeared to have been in touch with paramedics that tended to her. The guy is that good.

A polite way to put it is that Levin is a man who polarizes opinion. I’m a Celebrity contestant Janice Dickinson called him the lowest form of pond scum, Radar magazine’s profile on him was titled Sultan of Sleeze, while blogging site Gawker said he was a “schlocky managing editor of a thieving celebrity news conglomerate” and accused him of filching stories from the Web site Courthouse News Service and passing them off as their own.

For his part, Baldwin said that Levin “seemed to be that breed of tabloid creature that realized an almost sexual level of pleasure from ruining other people’s lives.”

Some rival media outlets so dislike and distrust TMZ that they didn’t report Jackson was dead until it had been confirmed by the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. “That’s typical,” Levin told the Los Angeles Times. “No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That’s how competitors handle it. There’s no issue about our credibility,” he added. “Today, I made 100 phone calls, and everyone else made 100 calls,” Levin said of TMZ’s reporters the day it broke the Jackson story. “Everyone blanketed the city.” That seems to be true. The Web site has sources everywhere: its first reports about Jackson variously quoted a cardiologist at UCLA, another source inside the hospital where the stricken star was taken, a Jackson family member and Jackson’s father, Joe.

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