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Arts and Entertainment

How TMZ Operates Like A Spy Network To Ruthlessly Get Their Stories

TMZ founder Harvey Levin. (Getty Images)
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The New Yorker published a long investigative piece that tracks the rise, machinations, and questionable ethics of celebrity gossip website TMZ and ooh, boy is it juicy.In the article titled The Digital Dirt, reporter Nicholas Schmidle interviewed former and current TMZ staffers, and really gets into the wild, ruthless reporting tactics; much of which is based on paying sources thousands of dollars for surveillance videos, photos, and documents.

Most fascinating are the lengths to which reporters will go to get the story: one man rented out a room at the Beverly Hilton when Whitney Houston died and bribed hotel employees into letting him into her room, and taking photos of the bath tub in which her body was found. For TMZ, money talks, and they spend a lot of it to get information.

TMZ has paid at least one mole inside B.L.S., a limousine service, to provide lists of celebrity customers, their planned routes, and the license-plate numbers of their vehicles. (In a 2015 e-mail, a TMZ employee asked colleagues if anyone had yet established a source at Uber.) Justin Kaplan, a former production associate at TMZ, recalls meeting a B.L.S. source—"a Hispanic gentleman"—at a gas station in Van Nuys, handing over an envelope filled with cash, and receiving in return a client list. The process had been so well honed, Kaplan told me, that "we barely said a word to each other."

Here's another good bit, in which L.A. is referred to as "a city of stool pigeons," comprised of sources at places where celebrities could be spotted, who will eagerly feed information to TMZ for cash.

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TMZ resembles an intelligence agency as much as a news organization, and it has turned its domain, Los Angeles, into a city of stool pigeons. In an e-mail from last year, a photographer reported having four airport sources for the day, including "Harold at Delta, Leon at Baggage service, Fred at hudson news, Lyle at Fruit and nut stand." A former TMZ cameraman showed me expense reports that he had submitted in 2010, reflecting payments of forty or fifty dollars to various sources: to the counter girl at a Beverly Hills salon, for information on Goldie Hawn; to a valet, for Pete Sampras; to a shopkeeper, for Dwight Howard; and to a waiter, for Hayden Christensen. "Everybody rats everybody else out," Simon Cardoza, a former cameraman for the site, told me. "That's the beauty of TMZ."

But, as the piece notes, TMZ has become much more than just an inane celebrity gossip site. It's broken stories like the Ray Rice domestic abuse case that caused people to question the shady—nonexistent, really—ethics of the NFL. TMZ also broke the story on Donald Sterling's racist rants. In a way, TMZ speaks truth to power: one person interviewed called TMZ's coverage of stories like the Ray Rice and Donald stories "Watergate-esque."

In 2012, the site published a video showing four marines in Afghanistan urinating on dead insurgents, which prompted a criminal investigation and disciplinary action against the marines. Did such posts, Kurtz asked, signal an intent to change TMZ's reputation as "a raunchy tabloid operation"? (On the day the Fox interview aired, TMZ's home page featured an "exclusive" about Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper, who was threatening to sue an adult-film company over the release of a sex tape.) Levin's face lit up. "We've been around for nine years, and if you look at the stories that we've broken they are stories that literally every newscast in America has put on the air," he said.

Of course, not everyone loves what Levin's done with TMZ. Here's a quote from Alec Baldwin, whom TMZ busted for leaving a nasty voicemail to his daughter in 2007:

"There was a time when my greatest wish was to stab Harvey Levin with a rusty implement and watch his entrails go running down my forearm, in some Macbethian stance. I wanted him to die in my arms, while looking into my eyes, and I wanted to say to him, 'Oh, Harvey, you thoughtless little pig.'" Baldwin added, "He is a festering boil on the anus of American media."

Tell us how you really feel, Alec.

Harvey Levin, TMZ's founder, worked as a lawyer before getting into journalism and recently said, "I use my law degree every five minutes." As noted in the article, "TMZ has three reporters stationed full-time at the courthouse; the Los Angeles Times has one court reporter." It's a credible, trusted news outlet. At LAist, we cite TMZ as a source all the time.

The TMZ empire expanded, from website, to television show, and even a tour bus company that drives tourists around celeb-heavy spots of L.A. TMZ has managed to subvert the traditional roles of publicists; it's common practice for celebrities to actually tip off TMZ to their locations themselves in an effort to have more control over their image.

Some stars call ahead with their location, and then act surprised when the bus drives by. "It's almost like an African jungle safari—they'll come up to the bus," Levin said recently.

But the piece also goes in on Levin's harsh temperament; traits not out of character for an executive producer in Hollywood, really:

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"Harvey has no problem publicly shaming you," a former assignment-desk producer told me. "He used to say, to all of us, 'My fucking dogs are smarter than you!' You become like a battered child. He beats you down, but the second you're about to say, 'Screw this place,' he gives you a compliment, and you live for that." The former TMZ photographer recounted that Levin once screamed, "I could get a monkey to do your job!" and, on another occasion, "Do you want me to draw this out in crayons for you fucking idiots?" The former news reporter said that, on one occasion, Levin compared his staff to "a roomful of handicapped people." Rory Waltzer, another former cameraman, told me, "Harvey Levin would have been a great dictator: he is charming enough so that you want to follow him, but terrifying enough so that you don't want to fail."

TMZ allegedly has a sexual harassment problem, too. Last year, a former TMZ writer Taryn Hillin sued the company for sexual discrimination and unlawful termination, specifically Evan Rosenblum, one of Levin's deputies.

According to the lawsuit, Rosenblum "routinely belittled, berated and humiliated" her, "screaming at her in front of co-workers" and telling her, "I fucking hate this shit you hand in." She called the workplace environment at TMZ "hostile or offensive." (Levin isn't named in the suit, although TMZ Productions is.) Dozens of current and former employees characterized the TMZ offices as an uncomfortable workplace. "Sex was discussed casually, as a commodity," another former producer said. He described employees regularly gathering around computer monitors to watch footage of celebrities having sex. (Stills from these clips appeared on TMZ.)

It wasn't easy for the reporter to get TMZ employees (current and former) on the record, because they feared what Levin might do if he found out they were spilling to a journalist.
One former employee came to lunch in a disguise, worried that she might be recognized speaking to a reporter. Another stood me up; she later apologized, saying, "I was scared." Numerous former employees confessed to going on medication to manage workplace anxiety. "Harvey is ruthless," Simon Cardoza, the former cameraman, said. "He is able to treat people like shit because everybody wants to be near the limelight."

The article also goes into the politics involved in holding a story, citing the time a few years ago when someone sent TMZ a video of 14-year-old Justin Bieber parodying one of his own songs, "One Less Lonely Girl," in which he replaces the word "girl" with the n-word. TMZ didn't publish the story then; the information was instead treated as collateral.

Though Levin himself wasn't interviewed for the story (he refused to comment), it's still a fascinating read. I'll certainly be reading TMZ with piqued interest from now on.