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.
The 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!”
Halfway 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 heroin overdose.
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 celebrity stalkers.
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.
Before 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.
In 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.
But 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?
To 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.
FameFlynet (Travolta, Lohan), Handout / Reuters (Bieber)
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.
In 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 the cheap.
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 interest.
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 celebrity sphere.
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.
Which is 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.
The 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 insider knowledge.
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 — was theirs.
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.”
TMZ 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 driver.”
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.