'The Hills'? No, TMZ Now Hits the Hill

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Aaron Schock says he was "shocked and amazed" by the reaction to his unexpected television cameo.

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, the celebrity gossip Web site and television show, 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, TMZ's founder, says politicians are now prime targets for his roving band of ambush artists, who are usually chasing the likes of Jessica Simpson and Amy Winehouse.

"They're so tightly controlled by their people: 'Oh my God, you can never do anything that isn't vetted.' This is way more powerful," he says from Los Angeles. "When you're on C-SPAN, you're not getting new people into the tent, you're not reaching a pop-culture audience like this."

TMZ has earned some journalistic cred in recent years for disclosing Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade and comedian Michael Richards's racist monologue. The Web site stirred controversy last month for publishing what appeared to be a police photo of a badly beaten Rihanna and refused to say whether it paid for the chilling picture.

The brief interviews with Beltway politicians have been in a lighter vein, and nobody would confuse them with serious journalism.

On Tuesday, for instance, TMZ aired a segment in which its Washington reporter asked members of Congress at Reagan National Airport what kind of mattress he should use if he wanted to stash his money underneath. "I'd say a Serta sleeper," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). "I use a cot," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "I don't think you should keep it in your mattress," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) dissented.

Earlier, the reporter approached Sen. Richard Burr during snowy weather to ask why on earth he was driving a convertible. The North Carolina Republican laughed, saying the car was an old model popularly known as the "VW Thing." The show poked fun at Burr, comparing him to a cuckoo clock.

But Burr's office posted the footage of him and his 1974 car on its Web site. "We didn't know so many people watched TMZ in North Carolina," says Chris Walker, Burr's spokesman. "Pretty much everywhere he went, somebody would approach him: 'We saw your clip.' It kind of showed Senator Burr in his element, driving in the snow with the top down, a rare glimpse that people don't ordinarily get to see."

Sometimes the attempts just fizzle. The day after Angelina Jolie came to Washington for a film shoot earlier this month, a TMZer saw Colin Powell on the street and asked, "How was the meeting with Angelina yesterday?"

"Who?" the former secretary of state replied. It turned out he hadn't met with her.

More up TMZ's traditional alley was her partner Brad Pitt, lobbying here for low-income housing in New Orleans. A producer shouted a question about the actor allegedly running a stop sign back home on Wilshire Boulevard. Pitt pleaded ignorance.

Schock was less tongue-tied during a second encounter with TMZ, when he was asked whether he or President Obama has better abs, saying maybe they should compare physiques. Schock says such unscripted appearances play very differently with home-state voters than being on "Today" or "Face the Nation." "The last person they expect to show up on a show like TMZ is their congressman," he says.

While TMZ dropped plans to open a Washington office in 2007, Levin sees politics as fertile ground. Individual lawmakers might not be well-known beyond their districts, Levin says, but sprinkling a little celebrity dust on them -- even if it involves mild mockery -- might give them more of a platform for their views.

Besides, he says, "how many stories can you do about Lindsay Lohan?"

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