Earns Newfound Respect After Scoop on Michael Jackson's Death

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

LOS ANGELES, June 30 --, the scrappy entertainment-news Web site, has scooped up some pretty big fish in its four years of existence, but last week it hauled in the celebrity equivalent of Moby-Dick.

Almost as soon as an ambulance pulled up to the gate of Michael Jackson's rented estate in Holmby Hills, TMZ was posting the news to the world under one of its bright-red "exclusive" banners. When Jackson, 50, died in cardiac arrest not long thereafter, TMZ had that, too -- beating not just the rest of the news media but the Los Angeles coroner's announcement.

The scoops, and subsequent red-framed "exclusives" about Jackson's tangled personal and professional affairs, have brought not only massive attention to the site but also a journalistic reassessment as well.

The question is: Did TMZ just get lucky with its Jackson coverage -- a right-place, right-time lightning strike -- or has TMZ built a smarter new-media organization that could teach the rest of the pack how to get it done?

Harvey Levin, the confident and energetic founder of the site (and its companion TV program), has no doubt about how to answer that one.

"If you look at the site since we launched, you'll see thousands of stories we've broken," says Levin, rattling off scoops about Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant and Anna Nicole Smith's and Heath Ledger's overdose deaths. (TMZ was also the first to carry surreptitiously recorded tirades by actors Alec Baldwin and Christian Bale.) "This is a news operation. All we have done is applied the traditional skills of news reporting. Honest to god, it's that simple."

In fact, it's a little more complicated than that. For all its solid reporting, TMZ -- the name refers to the exclusionary "30-mile zone" that determines whether a studio must pay travel expenses and per diems -- also ferrets out the salacious, tabloid-y items that most mainstream news outlets won't touch. Its willingness to post unflattering and at times trivial details about celebrities makes it the bane of Hollywood publicists but the perfect outlet for ladder-climbers and backbiters.

The site seems squarely in the grand tradition of gossip columnists Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell and the Kenneth Anger exposé book "Hollywood Babylon": a combination of the tawdry, the dishy and the stunning, always with a suggestion of intimacies revealed. Its many "exclusives" fall into two categories: dead-on, journalistically accurate accounts (like its coverage of Jackson's death) and eyebrow-raising but uncheckable sensation.

The problem is, it's often hard to tell which is which.

Typical of the latter is an item that went up early Tuesday: "We've learned Michael Jackson was not the biological father of any of his children. And Debbie Rowe is not the biological mother of the two kids she bore for Michael. All three children were conceived in vitro -- outside the womb." TMZ based the story on "multiple sources deeply connected to the births."

Although photos of Jackson's fair-skinned children have always raised doubts about their paternity (Us magazine reported Tuesday that Jackson's dermatologist was actually their father), Rowe has long claimed to be the mother of the elder two children, Michael Jr., 12, and Paris Michael, 11. Without conclusive DNA tests, it's hard to know whether "sources deeply connected to the births" (the placenta?) would know such an intimate detail for certain.

That is why some journalists have tended to view TMZ's reporting warily. Even though TMZ nailed the Jackson story cold, CNN, among other news outlets, waited for the Los Angeles Times to confirm the account before going with the story. The network's hesitance is particularly telling; CNN is owned by Time Warner, the same company that owns TMZ.

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