This week’s issue of the New Yorker includes a lengthy and colorful report on controversial gossip site TMZ and its deeply tanned founder, Harvey Levin. In August, The Hollywood Reporter reported that the piece, which at that point was already a yearlong project, had Levin shaking in his boots.
The article, written by staff writer Nicholas Schmidle, whose previous work includes an investigation into the night Bin Ladin was killed, is pretty juicy, though it ultimately mostly confirms things speculated about for years. Most notably, Schmidle includes amounts (often disputed by TMZ) paid to sources for particular stories—$15,000, according to one source, for footage of Ray Rice dragging Janay Palmer out of an elevator; $5,000, according to a former employee, for footage from the Solange-Jay Z elevator fight (Page Six reported that it was $250K).
TMZ, the article underscores, has broken some of the biggest celebrity stories of the decade using tactics—i.e. regularly paying sources—that skip around the traditional journalistic code. Due to an internal emphasis on video evidence, however, TMZ scoops are usually correct, and more traditional media outlets (like this one) will often pick them up, capitalizing on the results of their techniques without having to actually use them. TMZ had the Ray Rice story, the Donald Sterling story, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant; according to the New Yorker, they broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death “eighteen minutes after Jackson stopped breathing.”
The website does this by paying moles in, for example, airline and limousine services, to pass along celebrity info, and “has built a deep network of sources, including entertainment lawyers, reality-television stars, adult-film brokers, and court officials, allowing Levin to knock down the walls that guard celebrity life.” But they also sit on certain stories in order to breed celebrity cooperation, like a video TMZ procured of a 15-year-old Bieber singing the N-word (the video was eventually published by The Sun in 2014).
Twenty-four hours after the Bieber video came in, the newsroom learned that Levin had decided not to run the story. He did not destroy his copy of the video, however, and Bieber’s camp was aware that Levin could reverse his position and post it. Celebrity secrets are treated like commodities at TMZ, not unlike the way they were treated by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. “The power of secret information was a gun that Hoover always kept loaded,” Tim Wiener writes, in “Enemies,” a 2012 book about the bureau. A former writer for TMZ told me that, for Levin, there was more to gain by sitting on the clip, and earning Bieber’s good will, than by running it and ruining his career.
The article also takes a look at how the site’s success has occasionally affected its content, with publicists now taking pains to work with TMZ in order to better control coverage of their clients; the site was originally founded, the New Yorker notes, in direct opposition to this “lie” of celebrity journalism, in which access is traded for fawning coverage:
Josh Levine, TMZ’s first cameraman, told me that, once the site became successful, many publicists changed their strategy. “They started tipping us off,” Levine said. He remembered filming Paris Hilton and her boyfriend at a movie theatre in Los Angeles in 2007; Hilton appeared surprised by Levine’s presence, even though, according to Levine, he was acting on a tip from Hilton’s own publicist, Elliot Mintz. Gillian Sheldon told me, “I can’t tell you how many times we got calls from Britney Spears, or her people, who called to say, ‘She’s going to get a tan.’ ”
Possibly the most striking bits of the article are its descriptions of Harvey Levin, the site’s founder, who went to law school at the University of Chicago and spent time as a law professor before transitioning to reporting. Some verge on cartoonish:
Several of Levin’s colleagues told me that he is determined to maintain his youth. Gillian Sheldon, TMZ’s first publicist, who later became a supervising producer, said, “Once, Sumner Redstone”—the former executive chairman of Viacom, who is ninety-two—“told him that one of the secrets of his longevity was that he ate blueberries every day. So then, for months, Harvey was, like, ‘Blueberries!’ all the time.”
In July, 2007, Levin moved TMZ into a space in West Hollywood. Instead of taking a corner office, he placed his desk on a riser in the center of the newsroom, creating an editorial panopticon. “Anytime you went to talk to him, you felt like a supplicant,” a former senior producer told me.
Alec Baldwin, who has been the subject of several less-than-flattering TMZ reports over the years, had this to say:
“There was a time when my greatest wish was to stab Harvey Levin with a rusty implement and watch his entrails go running down my forearm, in some Macbethian stance. I wanted him to die in my arms, while looking into my eyes, and I wanted to say to him, ‘Oh, Harvey, you thoughtless little pig.’ ” Baldwin added, “He is a festering boil on the anus of American media.”
Others anecdotes are less funny:
“Harvey has no problem publicly shaming you,” a former assignment-desk producer told me. “He used to say, to all of us, ‘My fucking dogs are smarter than you!’ You become like a battered child. He beats you down, but the second you’re about to say, ‘Screw this place,’ he gives you a compliment, and you live for that.” The former TMZ photographer recounted that Levin once screamed, “I could get a monkey to do your job!” and, on another occasion, “Do you want me to draw this out in crayons for you fucking idiots?”
According to the New Yorker, “Dozens of current and former employees characterized the TMZ offices as an uncomfortable workplace,” with one producer referring to the culture as “misogynistic”; a former TMZ writer is currently suing the company for sexual discrimination and unlawful termination.
“Sex was discussed casually, as a commodity,” another former producer said. He described employees regularly gathering around computer monitors to watch footage of celebrities having sex. (Stills from these clips appeared on TMZ.)
One former employee came to lunch in a disguise, worried that she might be recognized speaking to a reporter. Another stood me up; she later apologized, saying, “I was scared.” Numerous former employees confessed to going on medication to manage workplace anxiety.
What a world we live in, folks. Read the full article here.
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