Who, or What, Is TMZ?

When Mel Gibson was pulled over for driving under the influence on Friday, he had a few choice words for the cops who stopped him. He should have been more judicious. He should have saved some for TMZ.com .

Hovering somewhere between gossip and news, TMZ appears to be the next phase in the evolution of celebrity journalism, a development that leaves pundits and players feeling either queasy or compelled, depending on whom you ask. In just nine months since going live, TMZ has broken its share of stories—the day it went online, the site obtained video footage of a Paris Hilton hit-and-run. In May it introduced us to oil heir Brandon Davis, who in turn graced us with his drunken loathing of actress Lindsay Lohan and a new word for the female genitalia. And now, by reporting Gibson’s arrest and anti-Semitic ranting late last week, complete with Smoking Gun-style police reports, TMZ has for the first time affected the national (or at least dinnertime) dialogue—to say nothing of one of the most powerful Hollywood careers.

So, we’ll bite: who, or what, is TMZ? With a recent redesign, the site, a joint venture between America Online and Telepictures, has the look and feel of a blog with a journalistic pedigree. A typical day includes updates on the marital status of Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock (as of press time, still in connubial bliss), video footage of Ashlee Simpson arriving at a Hollywood hotspot (feeling, she reports, “excellent”) and whether Ben Affleck caught a Red Sox pop fly launched into his section at Fenway Park  (he did not). Mixed in with all of the above are newsier tidbits—such as United Talent Agency’s filing suit against Wesley Snipes, one of its own actors, for breach of contract—which have clearly been unearthed by someone who knows his way around legal documents and police stations.

That would be Harvey Levin. A lawyer-cum-investigative reporter, Levin is known to Los Angelenos as a former local CBS reporter and creator and producer of “Celebrity Justice.” Today he’s TMZ’s managing editor. A man rich in sources and contacts, Levin not only broke the story of Gibson’s arrest (which he says was “100 percent” vetted and lawsuit-proof) but with almost stereotypical attack-dog investigative brio is now alleging the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department tried to cover up Gibson’s behavior. “I said no to this job,” he tells NEWSWEEK days after breaking the Gibson story. “I’m a TV guy and I said ‘I’m not going to the Internet.’ Then I realized that if you do it as a real news organization and you can publish on demand, you can marry text and photos and interactivity.” That’s precisely what he has done, building a site that inhabits a journalistic grey area somewhere between The Smoking Gun (the all-news-and-mugshot investigative site) and Gawker (the New York gossip site that hosts it’s own “Gawker Stalker” map of semi-real-time celebrity sightings).

Levin says that TMZ (which stands for “Thirty Mile Zone,” after an antiquated studio bylaw) is a news site. It simply depends on how you define news. When tongues wagged over the fact that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ lovechild may never have been born, Levin’s team tracked down the birth certificate and reported “items of curiosity.” But TMZ’s true stock in trade consists of videos shot either by Josh Levine in Los Angeles, Willem DeVries in New York or one of its 25 other staffers. They also pay agencies like X17 and Splash for videos on a daily basis, according to a spokeswoman, but Levin insists that none of the footage is obtained through ill-gotten or illegal means.  A recent seven-second clip featured Britney Spears walking across a Las Vegas hotel lobby with Kevin Federline. Nothing happens in the video. It is, by any standards, dull. In its first nine days on the site it was streamed 110,000 times. “I think the definition of news is broader that what some people call news,” explains Levin. “I think of this as more of a magazine.”

To some, TMZ represents a logical next step over a line that was crossed by paparazzi a long time ago. Not only are the legal transgressions of the rich and powerful newsworthy, so are their short walks from nightclub to waiting limo. It’s no news that anyone with a digital camera and a YouTube account can participate in the cultural dialogue on the Web. But this represents a step from the other direction: the quality of footage from this self-styled news organization is as amateurish and bereft of news as any start-up video blog. “There is a straight line from Zapruder to all of this,” says Sreenath Sreenivasan, the dean of students and professor at Columbia Journalism School, referring to the Dallas man who was the only person to capture John F. Kennedy's assassination on film. “It’s a depressing line. But it’s still a straight line.”

And it’s an effective one. According to Nielsen/NetRankings, TMZ reached an audience of 4.5 million in June—more than the viewers of The Smoking Gun and Entertainment Weekly’s Web sites combined (1.7 and 1.6 million respectively). Those numbers are due at least in part to AOL’s helping hand, which supplies infrastructure, promotes content and helps foster community with innovations like audio comments that readers can phone in to individual blog postings. Jim Bankoff, AOL’s executive vice president for programming and products declines to discuss whether TMZ has been a profitable venture, but tells NEWSWEEK “we’re doing well on keeping costs down and on revenues” from advertising.

In many ways the idea of TMZ—a one-stop shop for candid clips of they’re-just-like-us celebrities—is such a no-brainer that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been around for years. “I jokingly refer to TMZ as ‘COPS: Online,’” says Perez Hilton (the nom de blog of reformed Los Angeles journalist Mario Lavandeira), whose eponymous site attracts thousands of visitors a day. “I love TMZ because it’s different from what I do. They’re able to buy paparazzi video, which I can’t afford to get. They have a lot of more financial resources.”

But it’s precisely for those reasons and those shooting-star video snippets that TMZ draws derision from other corners of the Web. “You can pretty much get that in just about any magazine on the newsstand. That’s not our shtick,” says William Bastone, editor of the Smoking Gun, the gumshoe website famous for its celebrity mugshots (Nick Nolte, anyone?) and for outing James Frey, the prevaricating memoirist behind “A Million Little Pieces.”

Bastone prides himself on not having ever spent “a single dime” to get a photograph or video of anyone famous. “They do a little bit of what we do, but I think what they’re known for is [shooting video] outside the night spots. We exist for one purpose: that is to break stories. We do not do gossip. We never wondered about who was pregnant; whether some baby was actually born. That’s not our thing. The idea that they’re enabling these video paparazzi? More power to them if that’s their little part of the world.” Like it or not, by breaking the Mel Gibson story, more power is exactly what they’ve got.