6 Revelations From The New Yorker's Expose on TMZ
The investigative piece provides insight into some of TMZ's biggest scoops and how Harvey Levin runs his celebrity news empire.
The New Yorker published its anticipated exposé into TMZ on Monday, and the investigative report gives an inside look at how the gossip hub operates.
The 11,000-word piece, titled "The Digital Dirt," has been in the works for more than a year from writer Nicholas Schmidle. Schmidle, whose story "Getting Bin Laden" was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2013, dug into how the Warner Bros.-owned celebrity news site and its founder Harvey Levin manage to get the documents, videos, photos and sources that help them break their scoops.
In the story, Schmidle details how much TMZ shells out to acquire stories, such as the now-infamous Ray Rice videos; how the site first came about (it was almost called Buzz Feed); and who in Hollywood supports and loathes head honcho Levin ("He is a festering boil on the anus of American media," says Alec Baldwin in the piece).
Here are six key takeaways:
TMZ Paid More Than $100K for the Ray Rice Videos
Site founder Levin makes no secret that TMZ pays for content, and "The Digital Dirt" details how those payments can be as little as $50 for spotting a celebrity around Hollywood to more than $5,000 for the surveillance footage of Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z in an elevator after the 2014 Met Gala.
Even more viral than that particular elevator video were the two videos of Ray Rice and his fiancee Janay Palmer. According to a former TMZ photographer, the site paid $15,000 for the first surveillance video and almost $90,000 for the second, which showed the former Baltimore Ravens player punching Palmer in the head. TMZ received the tip from a surveillance officer working at the site of the incident, the Revel hotel and casino in Atlantic City, N.J., who recorded the footage on a cell phone.
"Everybody rats everybody else out," a former TMZ employee tells Schmidle. "That’s the beauty of TMZ."
Baldwin Once Fantasized About Watching Levin "Die in My Arms"
From limousine and airport staffers to defense attorneys and publicists, the New Yorker piece reveals the vast array of sources employed by Levin and his team when it comes to digging up personal information on celebrities.
Baldwin is one of many stars who has been featured on TMZ for unflattering reasons (in 2007, TMZ posted a voicemail of the actor calling his daughter Ireland a "thoughtless little pig"), and he has far harsher words for Levin in "The Digital Dirt."
"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," Baldwin tells Schmidle. "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.'"
He then adds, "He is a festering boil on the anus of American media."
A Play-by-Play of the Justin Bieber Shakedown
In 2014, The Sun published a video of Justin Bieber making racist jokes and TMZ announced that they had the damning video four years prior, but decided not to publish it "in large part because he was 15."
However, reports began to circulate that the real reason TMZ sat on the video is because they were using it "as essentially ransom" to get Bieber and his team to work with them and give them stories.
"The Digital Dirt" provides a detailed account from a former production assistant as to how the entire Bieber saga went down and how a former writer for the website said there was more value in earning Bieber's good will than by running one video. After Levin decided not to run the video, "numerous flattering Bieber-related exclusives appeared on the site," writes Schmidle, adding how the performer even made numerous appearances on TMZ Live. When The Sun published the video, Levin "feigned shock" while covering the story on their newscast.
TMZ Was Almost Called Buzz Feed
Levin, who studied political science as an undergrad before earning his law degree at the University of Chicago, got his start as a managing editor on the TV shows The People's Court and subsequently Superior Court before taking reporting jobs with NBC and CBS' Los Angeles affiliates and eventually premiering his own celebrity breaking-news show, Celebrity Justice, in 2002.
When he pitched bringing the spirit of the show to the Internet with Telepictures and AOL, site names "Feed the Beast," "Frenzie" and "Buzz Feed" were all considered before a Telepictures executive suggested "Thirty Mile Zone." Levin, writes Schmidle, suggested they use the abbreviated version of the old movie-industry phrase about the industry's L.A. boundaries: TMZ. In November of 2005, they were up and running.
One of TMZ's Biggest Freelancers Hustles at Craig's
Kevin Blatt is a prolific source for TMZ who has been responsible for breaking stories on Charlie Sheen, Lamar Odom and various celebrity sex tapes. In the New Yorker piece, Blatt, who has also worked in the porn industry, meets Schmidle at celebrity haunt Craig's to share some insight as to how he gets his tips.
Of the staff working at the popular West Hollywood steakhouse, Blatt tells Schmidle, "These are the people who call me with stuff." The self-proclaimed hustler estimates that he has made more than $30,000 per year from TMZ by knowing the ins-and-outs of Hollywood hotspots like Craig's, the Beverly Hilton and the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
Levin's Chiropractor Partner Runs Celebrity Bus Tours
After the success of the website, Levin began to expand the TMZ empire. He launched two syndicated TV shows, TMZ on TV in 2007 and TMZ Live in 2012, and he operates celebrity-spotting TMZ bus tours in New York and Los Angeles, which are managed by Levin’s chiropractor/partner Andy Mauer.
"Some stars calls ahead with their location and then act surprised when the tour bus drives by," writes Schmidle in his report.
The working relationship with the celebrity and the site changed as soon as TMZ became popular. "[Publicists] started tipping us off," TMZ's first cameraman tells Schmidle. "I can’t tell you how many times we got calls from Britney Spears, or her people, who called to say, 'She’s going to get a tan.'"
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