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Correction to This Article
The Media Notes column incorrectly said that TMZ is part of AOL. TMZ was founded by AOL and Telepictures, part of the Warner Bros. Television Group, but is owned solely by Tele8pictures now that AOL is separate from Time Warner.
Dish upon a star: Mel Gibson plays a pivotal role as Radar, TMZ wage heated gossip war

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; C01

At 6:32 Friday morning, Radar Online reported that Mel Gibson's ex-girlfriend had told authorities that the actor had made a death threat involving a high-profile Jewish figure in Hollywood.

"I want Jew blood on my hands," Gibson is supposed to have said, according to an unnamed source, and wanted the person "taken to the desert, stripped naked, kneecapped and left in the heat."

More than three hours later, TMZ reported the same allegation as coming from the former girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, with one key detail that Radar had withheld: that Gibson's alleged target was TMZ founder Harvey Levin. TMZ made light of the purported plot, dismissively describing the Radar piece as having been "spoon-fed by Oksana's people."

That swipe brought a chortle from David Perel, the former National Enquirer editor who runs Radar Online. If TMZ was now confirming that Levin was the subject of Gibson's rage, Perel says, "how did they get destroyed on their own story?"

The Gibson saga forms the lurid backdrop of a blogosphere battle for gossip supremacy in Los Angeles. TMZ, the Web site that made its name by disclosing Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant to police in 2006, is suddenly being challenged by Radar, a twice-failed print magazine that was reincarnated as a Web site just over a year ago.

Since Radar began posting audio of Gibson's ugly diatribes against the mother of his 8-month-old daughter, captured in a series of phone calls, the rival operations have seemed to choose up sides, with Perel's site having an apparent pipeline to Grigorieva's team and Levin's site attempting to knock down some of the stories. On the alleged death threat, for instance, Perel says he withheld the target's name because he didn't want to be responsible for inflaming the situation. TMZ, however, said the L.A. Sheriff's Department took the claim so lightly that it never bothered to notify Levin.

Competing news organizations sometimes work with opposing groups of sources to one-up each other on a breaking story -- especially in Hollywood, where high-powered publicists often dole out tidbits to favored outlets.

Radar posted a photo on July 16 showing the injured face of Grigorieva, who says Gibson punched her in the mouth and broke two teeth.

Soon afterward, TMZ put up a story that said "law enforcement is investigating the scenario that the damage to the veneers could have been self-inflicted." In another report that day, TMZ said: "The dentist who treated Oksana Grigorieva does not believe she was struck in the mouth as she claims . . . and his evaluation raises serious questions about her injuries."

Says Perel: "What is particularly disturbing from a journalistic viewpoint is this 'opposition journalism' where, when you get beat on a story, you manufacture a story to get your outlet attention, and make it appear that your competitor is wrong."

Levin, who is usually quite accessible, sent word through a spokeswoman that he would have no comment.

TMZ soon backed away from its initial story on Grigorieva's dentist, Ross Shelden, saying: "The dentist who examined Oksana Grigorieva the day after the January 6 showdown with Mel Gibson now says she was indeed struck in the mouth." And: "Sources connected with Oksana say the dentist's testimony will ultimately provide powerful support, in part because she told him that Mel hit her and that she wanted to protect him at all costs."

Beyond the dueling Gibson pieces, there are key stylistic differences. TMZ has become a dominant player, based on a steady series of mega-scoops -- among them, the first report of Michael Jackson's death last year -- and a syndicated television show. Radar Online remains a promising upstart, drawing 5.3 million monthly visitors in June, according to Google Analytics. TMZ, which is part of AOL, had 14.2 million visitors according to comScore, another measurement company.

'Celebrity-friendly'

From the beginning, Perel envisioned Radar as a "celebrity-friendly" site. That was the niche he proposed to American Media, the Enquirer's corporate parent, which launched the venture with Chicago businessman Yusef Jackson, a son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. American Media helps bankroll the site as managing partner, while Jackson has financial backing from California billionaire Ron Burkle.

"We don't shoot paparazzi video," Perel says. "We don't run up to celebrities and shout questions at them. That's not our thing." Unlike TMZ, he says, "we're not juvenile. We're not nasty to celebrities." (TMZ often pokes gentle fun at boldfaced names or runs photo spreads with such headlines as "Victoria's Secret Model -- Blazin' Hot Bikini Time.")

Radar is accredited to red-carpet events and openly cooperates with Hollywood types on such features as "In the Closet," where the likes of "CSI: Miami" star Sofia Milos show off their wardrobes at home. A Radar cameraman went sky-diving with Trevor Donovan of "90210." When Perel broke the story that Simon Cowell was engaged, he did it by having an on-the-record dinner with Cowell's fiancee, makeup artist Mezhgan Hussainy.

The video-heavy site chases the 18-to-26 demographic with stories about "Jersey Shore," Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and anyone named Kardashian. (Perel, 51, says his teenage kids keep him in touch.) He reluctantly posted an item about Tony Curtis being hospitalized, seeing Curtis as an unfamiliar figure to most Radar readers.

Dylan Howard, Perel's deputy and a former television reporter in Australia, says Radar strives to provide "the complete entertainment experience" by blanketing Hollywood: "You hang out with sources and you build up those relationships. It's no different than a police reporter at a small-town paper. It's all about contacts."

At the outset, Perel says, "it was a huge struggle. I had no staff. It was basically a blog of rewritten items." He now has 30 staffers, and Radar has broken news about Anna Paquin announcing her bisexuality, Halle Berry's split from her daughter's father and Charlie Sheen going into rehab.

Radar blundered badly in March, reporting that Chief Justice John Roberts was "seriously considering stepping down from the nation's highest court for personal reasons" before retracting the story.

Ironically, on the day of its April 2009 debut, Radar posted an exclusive photo of Gibson -- then married to his wife of more than a quarter-century, Robyn -- embracing Grigorieva on a Costa Rica beach. He left Robyn, and fathered a baby with his new love.

Radar got a tip last month that Gibson had filed, under court seal, for a restraining order against Grigorieva. Perel's reporters knocked on her door, and the Russian-born musician said Gibson is "playing dirty" and that "the truth will come out."

Since July 1, Perel has posted a series of angry phone exchanges between the two, with Gibson threatening Grigorieva, calling her a "whore," using the N-word, telling her that "you need a [expletive] bat around the head," that she "[expletive] deserved it" when he hit her, and that "no one will believe you."

Major media shy away

Perel maintains Radar didn't pay a dime for the audiotapes -- he says he didn't get them from Grigorieva -- but will not comment on whether he made other payments in connection with the story. He says Radar does not pay for information, as the supermarket tabloids do, but will pay a licensing fee for photos and videos, as the networks and celebrity magazines sometimes do.

The story went viral, Perel says, because people could listen to Gibson's rants -- "the hyperventilating, the panting, the menacing tone, the viciousness." He denies being in Grigorieva's corner, saying Radar has reported claims by Gibson's side that she was trying to extort millions of dollars from the actor. But in an allusion to TMZ's earlier reporting, he says: "I think it's dangerous to blame someone who says they're a victim of domestic violence unless you're well-grounded in facts."

Strangely enough, given Gibson's star power and the huge controversy over his film "The Passion of the Christ," the network newscasts and major newspapers have barely touched the story. The Washington Post has run one paragraph in its gossip column, while the New York Times carried its first news story Thursday, saying foreign distributors may be shying away from Gibson's movies. But that hardly matters: Everyone knows about Mel's meltdowns and plenty of people have heard the tapes.

Radar has been relentless. On Thursday, alongside such features as "Paris Hilton's Champagne-Soaked Bash," the site published a text message in which Gibson told Grigorieva after their January fight: "Oksana, I wasn't safe for you last night. I spent two hours with a therapist today and have regained some perspective. What I'm telling you know [sic] is I am safe & would like to come by and make amends to you."

Perel has shrewdly dribbled out the Gibson revelations, at times quadrupling Radar's traffic. On July 16, when the surge knocked his site offline for 20 minutes, Perel admits he went ballistic:

"I was talking to the tech people, and they told me I was starting to sound like Mel Gibson."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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