From The Hills To The Hill: TMZ Turns Its Focus To D.C.S

TMZ will soon be giving Lindsey Graham the Lindsay Lohan treatment, as the company sics its "reporters" and camera crews on politicians. Because if there's one thing Washington needs, it's more frivolous reporting.

Though TMZ dropped its plans to open a Washington office in 2007, it has increasingly been focusing on political figures. According to The Washington Post, TMZ has been trying to beef up its journalistic credentials in recent years by breaking big stories like Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant, Michael Richard's racist monologue, and recently, by releasing photos of a beaten Rihanna. Last month, TMZ got the attention of politicians with an exclusive story about Chicago's Northern Trust Bank, which got $1.6 billion in federal bailout funds, sponsoring a golf tournament outside Los Angeles with performances the bands Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Last week, TMZ founder Harvey Levin was invited to speak to journalism graduate students at U.C. Berkeley.

TMZ and other celebrity-focused websites like Hollywood.com and L.A. paparazzi blogger Zuma Dogg are covering individual lawmakers more as well. The Washington Post describes a recent incident in which Congressman Aaron Schock was interviewed by a TMZ reporter:

The freshman congressman, walking to the House chamber for a vote, was caught off-guard when a reporter approached him with a Sony camcorder, compared him to ex-fashion model and The Hills star Brody Jenner and asked him about D.C. nightlife.

The footage was shot by TMZ ... which cheekily suggested that the unmarried 27-year-old lawmaker must have "an impressive stimulus package." And while Schock managed to blurt only that he is "all work, no play," the airing of the brief encounter this month landed the Illinois Republican on the front page of the Peoria Journal Star and on several local newscasts. "I started getting text messages from a lot of stay-at-home moms in my district," he says. "I'm not Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. I was totally caught off guard."

Harvey Levin doesn't seem to see the same distinction between celebrities and congressmen. "We cover sports figures, chefs and people who are famous for all sorts of reasons ... and some of them are in politics," Levin told the San Francisco Chronicle. Levin admits that the millions of TMZ viewers are more interested in personalities than policies, but argues that attention from his camera crews may actually help politicians, since often even their constituents don't recognize them. "Our feeling is ... if you understand the personalities of some of these people, you care more about them," he says.

But clearly there is also a huge downside. Democratic political consultant Garry South, who was recorded last year by Zuma Dogg while meeting at a Malibu Starbucks with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom about his gubernatorial campaign, says the new paparazzi focus is likely to make politicians less candid even in private because they never know who is watching and filming. "It has politicians on notice, at least the savvy ones, that there is no privacy whatsoever anymore - not even in the bathroom at the urinal," says South. Newsom added, "We're in a reality TV series now in politics, 24/7."

Though more attention from the paparazzi may make politicians more recognizable to their constituents (especially if they're prone to cheating on their spouses or stumbling down the steps of the Capitol building) it's unlikely that the coverage will turn out to be as mutually beneficial as Levin makes it seem. News outlets are already focusing more on celebrity news and less on the boring political decisions that actually affect people's lives. Paparazzi prowling the streets of D.C. will probably make pols dress better on a daily basis, but overall TMZ's reporting will probably just lower the level of political discourse even further.

'The Hills'? No, TMZ Now Hits The Hill [The Washington Post]
Paparazzi Turning Lenses On Politicians [The San Francisco Chronicle]
TMZ Chief Is Speaker At Cal Journalism School [The San Francisco Chronicle]