Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Why TMZ gets so much praise for the Gibson scoop

We’re amused and a little amazed by the kudos the corporate tabloid website TMZ.com has received for breaking the Mel Gibson anti-Semitic sugar tits tirade story.

The leaking and posting of the arrest report has been hailed as an Internet journalism breakthrough. And today, there’s talk of TMZ being turned into a television show.

So it’s time to again point out that TMZ is not a renegade band of misfits beating the big boys on news stories. It's not even The Smoking Gun. It’s a corporate enterprise, an offshoot of the celebutainment show Extra; a big business division of Telepictures, owned by Time Warner and AOL. It's a case of corporate suits honing in on the action and buying up the alternative to the pap they dish out-- just as the news networks co-opted tabloid television with their Datelines and Primetime Lives and the syndicators devolved into Insiders, ETs, Access Hollywoods and Extras.

Harvey Levin, TMZ’s managing editor, is a Telepictures executive, attorney and former TV reporter who was placed reluctantly as the head of the Internet operation when his TV show Celebrity Justice was canceled and he was deemed too old for Extra’s team of pretties.

So the TMZ TV series idea isn't a surprise. That's probably been the plan from the start, as big corporations use the Internet as a cheap, grassroots testing ground. Next step in the plan would be to throw the website a big fat scoop-- and then promote the hell out of it.

For months, TMZ has been playing the standard, inconsequential Lohan-Hilton-Simpson-Brangelina tabloid game, upping the ante with some corporate-financed stalkerazzi action, sending kids with cameras to nightclubs and other celeb haunts in hopes of attracting a ruckus. They‘ve gotten a few, like when billionaire boy Brandon Davis was goaded into an ungentlemanly obscene rant about Lindsay Lohan (and nastily ran it on the site) and when Woody Harrelson fought back and busted one of their consumer cameras.

With these and other incidents, Harvey Levin and TMZ only got bad press for their greasy approach to celebrity tabloid and their ownership by a big corporation that makes money off those celebs.

Then came Mel. The landing of the Gibson story helped Time-Warner change the headline with a massive public relations campaign that got them big links on AOL’s Drudge Report and copycat stories by lazy media around the world.

So is TMZ breaking new ground? The Smoking Gun has been posting exclusive police reports and mugshots for years. Defamer has been the real source for brave, politically-incorrect Hollywood coverage. This site has kept the Patrick McDermott case alive and broke the story of the war profiteer’s multi-million dollar rock star Bat Mitzvah bash.

The details of how TMZ got the arrest report are blurry, but on the surface sounds like Tabloid 101. Back in the days of A Current Affair and Fox, when a story was too dirty to be told on television, it would be given to one of the Murdoch group's newspaper tabloids. Then the story could be told on television, safely attributed to the tabs. Often a scoop obtained by a producer or bought by the company would be given to a reporter in a need of profile boost (all these specifics can be found in Tabloid Baby).

Harvey Levin has crowed that his group is not beholden to publicists and will go where the story leads. From experience, we know that boast will hold out until Nick Lachey's publicist blacklists Extra because of the dirty work on the website. In Hollywood, Mel Gibson's an easy target. But the day Brad Pitt punches out a TMZ kid stalkerazzo, George Clooney will start organizing boycotts again.

Meanwhile, who leaked the police report? To whom in Time Warner was it leaked? And how did it wind up on TMZ.com?

A wise man once said… Follow the money…

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