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Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 3:07 PM

By Stephen Brook

TMZ.com is now the hottest Hollywood celebrity gossip website on the planet. So hot, in fact, that when it broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death last week, its world exclusive popped up online six minutes before the singer actually died.

For its many critics this was confirmation that the website, which, amid endless surveillance videos of minor celebs parking their cars and walking to their front doors, brought you exclusives on Mel Gibson’s antisemitic ravings at a traffic cop, Alec Baldwin’s brutal mobile phone rant at his 11-year-old daughter and the contents of Anna Nicole Smith’s bedside table the night she died (Slim Fast and chewing gum), plays fast and loose with the truth.

But for TMZ, the explanation was simple. By the time Jackson was officially declared dead, at 2.26 p.m. Los Angeles time last Thursday, one of the site’s sources within the corridors of the UCLA Medical Center (it has a vast network that blankets the city) had already tipped it off.

Michael Jackson dead was the scoop of a lifetime for any media outlet, and the apogee of the four-year-old celebrity-obsessed site that boasts its snippets are “even more fascinating than the hype”. In that time, TMZ (the name stands for thirty-mile zone, the area of central LA thickly populated with stars), which is as voyeristic as it is speedy, has become one of the world’s most quoted sources of entertainment news, with rival sites, TV channels and traditional gossip columns, such as the New York Post’s infamous Page Six, quoting it regularly.

And for all that, we have Harvey Levin to thank. The well-built, 57-year-old former lawyer turned TV journalist is now something of a celebrity himself, popping up on Larry King Live, and a bunch of other news magazine shows that dip into celebrity content. When Natasha Richardson hit her head while skiing and suffered fatal brain swelling, Levin, who founded TMZ, was all over the news channels and appeared to have been in touch with paramedics who tended to her. The guy is that good.

A polite way to put it is that Levin is a man who polarises opinion. I’m A Celebrity contestant Janice Dickinson called him the lowest form of pond scum, Radar magazine’s profile on him was titled Sultan of Sleeze, while blogging site Gawker said he was a “schlocky managing editor of a thieving celebrity news conglomerate” and accused him of filching stories from the website Courthouse News Service and passing them off as their own.

For his part, Baldwin said that Levin “seemed to be that breed of tabloid creature that realised an almost sexual level of pleasure from ruining other people’s lives”.

Some rival media outlets so dislike and distrust TMZ that they didn’t report Jackson was dead until it had been confirmed by the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. “That’s typical,” Levin told the Los Angeles Times. “No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That’s how competitors handle it. There’s no issue about our credibility,” he added. “Today, I made 100 phone calls, and everyone else made 100 calls,” Levin said of TMZ’s reporters the day it broke the Jackson story. “Everyone blanketed the city.” That seems to be true. The website has sources everywhere: its first reports about Jackson variously quoted a cardiologist at UCLA, another source inside the hospital where the stricken star was taken, a Jackson family member and Jackson’s father, Joe.

Kevin Smith, co-founder of independent news and picture agency Splash News, says that while many newspapers and magazines rely on celebrity content to get sales, but fill their pages with everything from crosswords to horoscopes, TMZ has just cut down to the bone - celebrity is all it supplies. “It is very raw, it is very crude, it’s not polished, but it works. A lot of people look at them with envy and think, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’”

Levin, who gossip sites love to point out is happily partnered to his bodybuilder-turned-chiropractor boyfriend, trained as a lawyer, but found the lure of TV irresistible. He passed his bar exam in 1975 and taught law before becoming a legal reporter for KCBS-TV in LA, where he covered the OJ Simpson trial. He later became a legal analyst on The People’s Court TV show, before dreaming up his own TV concept, Celebrity Justice. But the show didn’t last; a victim of poor time slots, it was axed after three years.


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