By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
LOS ANGELES, June 30 -- TMZ.com, 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.
"When we were starting out, we told people we were the anti-TMZ," says Sharon Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter who five months ago founded an entertainment industry news site, TheWrap.com. "We're not rumor- or scandal-mongers. We check our facts. They've come to connote scandal-mongering."
But other journalists take a measured view, particularly in light of TMZ's Jackson triumph. "This is not a couple of guys sitting in a coffee shop making things up," says Kevin Roderick, a Los Angeles Times reporter for 25 years who founded the LA Observed Web site in 2003. "It's a journalistic organization with some stylistic excesses. But they're concerned about their reputation for accuracy."
Levin, 58, a lawyer and former TV reporter for two stations in Los Angeles, bristles when TMZ's reporting is questioned. "We have sources everywhere," he says. "We've developed relationships with people over the years, people who trust us and want to talk with us. We say to them, 'Try us one time.' If we screwed people over, we'd be out of business.
"I'll be honest with you, if you have a bad story, we can say to you, 'We'll give you the best of a bad story.' "
As for the Debbie Rowe maternity post, he says: "This is 100 percent true!"
But Levin won't reveal a few things about his own operation and journalistic methods.
Ask him how many people work in TMZ's newsroom and he won't say ("We don't want to give away our business model"), though he acknowledges that the staff is young and can be glimpsed, almost in toto, during the "story meeting" segments of the TV show.
Levin also won't name his reporting stars (short postings are credited to "TMZ Staff"). He'll go on with praise about a recent hire who has turned out some of the Jackson coverage but won't say who he's talking about ("We don't want anyone to steal her away"). Nor will Levin reveal where TMZ's offices are (vague answer: somewhere on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood).
He will address, in general terms, one unusual journalistic practice that TMZ employs: paying sources for "news tips." Mainstream news organizations refuse to pay for information, fearing that it will elicit tainted information and compromise the integrity of the news. But TMZ has no such objections; it seeds sources with cash, sometimes as little as $50, according to Levin, to deliver useful nuggets (TMZ also pays for paparazzi photos and videos, although that practice is followed in the celebrity media).
"We might pay for the tip," Levin says, "but we go out and get the story ourselves. We check it, source it and report it."
People -- an average of 4 million unique visitors to the Web site a month -- seem to agree. The news is that, now, news people are starting to take TMZ seriously.
When the Jackson story broke last week, "news organizations were holding back looking for a source other than TMZ," said Jim Farley, vice president for news at WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington. "Finally, the L.A. Times had it. But next time we might go with TMZ. They now have a good track record."