LOS ANGELES - Lindsay Lohan’s latest worst day ever turned out to be a good one to visit the headquarters of TMZ.com. The starlet was pulled over early Tuesday morning with her blood count well over the legal limit and cocaine in her pocket. Within minutes tipsters had set the Web’s hottest celebrity news site in motion.
Using sources close to the target, TMZ moved the story along, as evidenced by e-mails that began appearing in my mailbox just before 6 a.m., less than four hours after the arrest in Santa Monica. “Lohan Busted for DUI ... Again!” was followed 23 minutes later by “Lohan - It’s Allegedly Worse than Alcohol” and then, seven minutes after that, by “Lohan Charges - Coke Found.”
It was just the latest in a string of journalistic coups for the site, which launched less than two years ago and is coming to TV this fall with a daily syndicated “TMZ” show.
When I heard that TMZ had moved from sleepy Glendale into new digs on Sunset Boulevard, where the TV show would be shot, I expected to walk into beautifully appointed studio space with lots of glass, a huge green screen and flat panels everywhere. What I walked into, instead, looked like a New Jersey tech startup, a galley of cubicles with an exposed ceiling, two floors up from a Virgin Megastore. There was no anchor desk in sight. The press conference had to be held in one of the theaters in a multiplex adjacent to TMZ.
“We’re really shooting this in the environment that we live in, and you’re going to kind of feel like you’re part of TMZ when you’re watching the show,” said Harvey Levin, the 55-year-old force of nature who founded TMZ.com and will be the closest thing to a host that “TMZ” has.
“It’s not going to be the boxy intros into a package with a tag,” he said, comparing “TMZ” to shinier entertainment programs like “ET” and “Access Hollywood.” “We’re not going to do that. It’s going to be faster-paced. We’re going to use people in the newsroom who actually find these stories to help sell these stories.”
As it happens, TMZ picked an office space across the street from the Laugh Factory, the comedy club where Michael Richards had let loose a racist diatribe. Video taken by one of the patrons had been acquired by TMZ, and it helped put the site on the map - as well as fear in the hearts of celebrity handlers everywhere.
Levin, who used to practice law before getting into television, worked on “The People’s Court” before producing “Celebrity Justice” in 2002. After “CJ” ceased in 2005, he started up TMZ.com, using the industry shorthand for the “thirty mile zone” surrounding L.A. that celebrities, media and publicists consider their turf.
Though TMZ seems at times a continuation of “CJ,” its scope is wider than the courtroom, and this small tweak has propelled Levin from relative obscurity to appearances on the “Today” show and another crack at syndication.
Last month TMZ broke the story that Paris Hilton would be freed from prison before serving her sentence for driving with a suspended license. It has been especially dogged in its reporting on the foibles of young female train wrecks like Lohan, Hilton and Britney Spears.
TMZ’s greatest hits include the news of Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest and the photographs of Anna Nicole Smith’s refrigerator in the Bahamas that suggested she was living off methadone and weight-loss shakes at the time of her death.
Levin said TMZ gets its scoops by reversing the usual power relationship in Hollywood and forcing publicists to deal with them on TMZ’s terms - or suffer the consequences.
“If you’re doing a traditional entertainment show and you want an interview with Tom Cruise, when the publicist calls you up and says, `If you do that story, we’re not going to give you Tom Cruise,’ it means something,” said Levin. “We don’t want the interview with Tom Cruise. We’re going to be fair, but we’re not going to fear publicists.”
That, in turn, emboldens sources to deal with TMZ, knowing that the story will be handled - what’s the old phrase? - without fear or favor.
“People trust us, and it’s unbelievable how much you can get when people trust you,” Levin said.
TMZ also represents a new 24/7 approach to journalism that would seem a natural for the Web but has been slow to evolve, for economic reasons.
“I’ve sent many a press release from my pajamas,” said Gillian Sheldon, one of TMZ’s constantly caffeinated producer-publicists, whose name was affixed to all the Lohan e-mails.
Whether it was a busy news day or TMZ’s own form of image-making, TV critics were certainly left with the impression that people there are constantly reacting to the exploits of the famous. Twice during the news conference Levin’s cell phone went off and he had to take the call. In one instance a well-trained aide stepped in front of Levin so no one could read his lips.
“You will so like this story,” Levin said afterward. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to deliver it, but if you see something involving football, you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
(Five hours later I received an e-mail, “Baby Mama forcing QB Out of the Pocket?” about a custody battle between NFL quarterback Matt Leinart and his ex-girlfriend.)
The consensus among my colleagues seemed to be that TMZ was doing journalism every bit as hard-nosed as any news organization - but was it worth it to help people poke more fun at Britney and Lindsay and Mel?
“What we’re doing isn’t representing the fall of Western civilization,” said Levin, who sounded as if he gets this question a lot. “These are people that human beings invest in. They invest in them by going to movies. They invest in them by buying DVDs, by buying their clothes. They follow these celebrities, and they want to see what they look like when they’re not wax figures on a red carpet.”