By now we expect that within hours of a celebrity getting arrested, filing for divorce, or even becoming ill, TMZ or Radar will have private documents and quotes from officials posted online. Common sense says sources are getting paid, not volunteering information because they believe it's the public's right to see a star's health records, but exactly how the spoiled, tasteless gossip sausage gets made is a bit of a mystery.
An article in today's New York Times attempts to explain how the minor details of even a C-lister's scandal can be turned into a huge payday. Unsurprisingly, much of it focuses on the Lohans.
Last summer when assault charges were filed against Michael Lohan by his then-fiancée Kate Major, a Times reporter just happened to be staying in the same hotel as Michael, and overheard him concocting a plan to start a bidding war between TMZ and Radar for his side of the story:
"What you have to do is monetize this," the associate said, adding, "What you want is to make them pay for that exclusivity."
Sure enough, Radar went on to post four "exclusives" quoting Mr. Lohan denying the charges and threatening to release tapes of Ms. Major.
Though the National Enquirer pushed the process of paying for celebrity dirt to new extremes in the '80s and '90s, today TMZ and Radar have taken things even farther, sometimes posting several of these "exclusives" per day. (The Enquirer hasn't developed its online presence, though clearly it's still a major player in the gossip world. One picture of John Edwards' love child is worth about 1,000 "exclusives" with Dina Lohan.)
The gossip sites are rumored to pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand and up for information. Even more reputable media outlets may have worked out a way to pay sources:
Network news divisions sometimes pay interview subjects "licensing fees," ostensibly for photographs or video. ABC News, whose rules allow payment for material used on air but not for interviews, acknowledged paying the family of Casey Anthony, a murder suspect, $200,000 for home video and pictures. A lawyer for Ms. Anthony said in court that the money went toward her defense against charges that she had killed her 2-year-old daughter.
That may sound familiar because Good Morning America claimed last week that it agreed to pay a $10,000 fee for photo rights to the possibly-fake "Botox Mom" story. She says she was promised a "large fee" to do the interview.
TMZ claims it doesn't pay police or other official sources, but it's hard to believe people are risking their jobs to offer up information to the site — unless there's a huge amount of cash at stake. Last year after Brittany Murphy's preliminary autopsy report and Michael Jackson's preliminary death certificate were leaked, the Los Angeles Coroner's Department launched an investigation. Deputy Coroner Ed Winter says:
"Here's what we're facing: the offer for pictures of Michael Jackson in our building was worth $2 million the day after he died ...We had to shut down public access to our building. We had people literally climb the back fence trying to break in and get what they could."
It seems that for a few thousand dollars people will not only violate professional ethics, but sell out their own family members. Shawn Chapman Holley, who you probably know as Lindsay Lohan's lawyer, says the media circus around celebrities today is worse now than it was when she served on O.J. Simpson's defense team. "There's this unbelievable hunger for a constant flow of information about these people," she said. "So everybody has to feed this machine all the time."
And Michael Lohan is always willing to oblige. A presumably unpaid source shared depositions from the lawsuit between Jon Gosselin and TLC with the Times. They reveal that Lohan was acting as a "story broker" for Gosselin. He introduced Gosselin to his manager Michael Heller, who would set up paid interviews and appearances with Gosselin. He took a 20% commission, and gave Lohan a cut too. Gosselin was offered $365,000 for interviews with various media outlets, not couning the cash he received. Department of Justice officials, who have been investigating the leaking of celebrities' private information for years, say they're hard to track because payouts are frequently made in cash.
Michael Lohan's shady relationship with the tabloid media has damaged his relationship with his daughter. (Though as we all know from following the Lohans' saga in the media, that's far from the only thing that's driving them apart.) However, he expressed no regrets over "monetizing" the harassment charges against him when approached by The Times. "It's a business," he said, "If they want to write stories about me, why shouldn't I get paid to tell the truth?"