What’s a TMZ?

Behind the story of an up-and-coming entertainment news site that broke the biggest celebrity news of the summer.
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When Mel Gibson was pulled over for driving under the influence on Friday, he had a few choice words for the cops who stopped him. He should have been more judicious. He should have saved some for TMZ.com .

Hovering somewhere between gossip and news, TMZ appears to be the next phase in the evolution of celebrity journalism, a development that leaves pundits and players feeling either queasy or compelled, depending on whom you ask. In just nine months since going live, TMZ has broken its share of stories—the day it went online, the site obtained video footage of a Paris Hilton hit-and-run. In May it introduced us to oil heir Brandon Davis, who in turn graced us with his drunken loathing of actress Lindsay Lohan and a new word for the female genitalia. And now, by reporting Gibson’s arrest and anti-Semitic ranting late last week, complete with Smoking Gun-style police reports, TMZ has for the first time affected the national (or at least dinnertime) dialogue—to say nothing of one of the most powerful Hollywood careers.

So, we’ll bite: who, or what, is TMZ? With a recent redesign, the site, a joint venture between America Online and Telepictures, has the look and feel of a blog with a journalistic pedigree. A typical day includes updates on the marital status of Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock (as of press time, still in connubial bliss), video footage of Ashlee Simpson arriving at a Hollywood hotspot (feeling, she reports, “excellent”) and whether Ben Affleck caught a Red Sox pop fly launched into his section at Fenway Park (he did not). Mixed in with all of the above are newsier tidbits—such as United Talent Agency’s filing suit against Wesley Snipes, one of its own actors, for breach of contract—which have clearly been unearthed by someone who knows his way around legal documents and police stations.

That would be Harvey Levin. A lawyer-cum-investigative reporter, Levin is known to Los Angelenos as a former local CBS reporter and creator and producer of “Celebrity Justice.” Today he’s TMZ’s managing editor. A man rich in sources and contacts, Levin not only broke the story of Gibson’s arrest (which he says was “100 percent” vetted and lawsuit-proof) but with almost stereotypical attack-dog investigative brio is now alleging the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department tried to cover up Gibson’s behavior. “I said no to this job,” he tells NEWSWEEK days after breaking the Gibson story. “I’m a TV guy and I said ‘I’m not going to the Internet.’ Then I realized that if you do it as a real news organization and you can publish on demand, you can marry text and photos and interactivity.” That’s precisely what he has done, building a site that inhabits a journalistic grey area somewhere between The Smoking Gun (the all-news-and-mugshot investigative site) and Gawker (the New York gossip site that hosts it’s own “Gawker Stalker” map of semi-real-time celebrity sightings).

Levin says that TMZ (which stands for “Thirty Mile Zone,” after an antiquated studio bylaw) is a news site. It simply depends on how you define news. When tongues wagged over the fact that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ lovechild may never have been born, Levin’s team tracked down the birth certificate and reported “items of curiosity.” But TMZ’s true stock in trade consists of videos shot either by Josh Levine in Los Angeles, Willem DeVries in New York or one of its 25 other staffers. They also pay agencies like X17 and Splash for videos on a daily basis, according to a spokeswoman, but Levin insists that none of the footage is obtained through ill-gotten or illegal means. A recent seven-second clip featured Britney Spears walking across a Las Vegas hotel lobby with Kevin Federline. Nothing happens in the video. It is, by any standards, dull. In its first nine days on the site it was streamed 110,000 times. “I think the definition of news is broader that what some people call news,” explains Levin. “I think of this as more of a magazine.”

To some, TMZ represents a logical next step over a line that was crossed by paparazzi a long time ago. Not only are the legal transgressions of the rich and powerful newsworthy, so are their short walks from nightclub to waiting limo. It’s no news that anyone with a digital camera and a YouTube account can participate in the cultural dialogue on the Web. But this represents a step from the other direction: the quality of footage from this self-styled news organization is as amateurish and bereft of news as any start-up video blog. “There is a straight line from Zapruder to all of this,” says Sreenath Sreenivasan, the dean of students and professor at Columbia Journalism School, referring to the Dallas man who was the only person to capture John F. Kennedy's assassination on film. “It’s a depressing line. But it’s still a straight line.”

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