TMZ honcho Harvey Levin basks in the rise of celebrity news
One of the most interesting interviews I conducted yesterday while assembling my A1 column for today's St. Pete Times about how the Tiger Woods story is changing sports journalism, was with TMZ founder Harvey Levin.
As the thirst for celebrity journalism rises in mainstream media,. Levin's TMZ.com and TMZ TV has been perfectly poised to take advantage. They were first to declare Michael Jackson dead -- minutes before officials did -- and the first to suggest Woods' car accident could have followed a fight with his wife.
Since the story broke in the wee hours of Nov. 27, TMZ has been on the case, offering details on the accident scene, lists of alleged lovers and the news that Woods' wife has moved out of that Orlando home as the tally of women allegedly linked to the golf superstar outside his marriage has reached double digits.
But Levin insisted Monday that TMZ wasn't drawn to the Woods story over the infidelity stuff. " What we reported was a car crash, but the facts of the crash weren’t adding up," he said. "It had to do with the fact that the story didn’t work. It didn’t make sense. Then we started looking at the crash and then it looked like there may have been a domestic fight involved.”
TMZ's allegations, along with a police report which initially said Woods had "serious injuries" kickstarted a media frenzy which shows little signs of abating. In a flash, Woods moved from the comfy bubble of the sports world -- where journalists might overlook his "trangressions" and paparazzi amazingly never trailed him around -- to the harsh spotlight of Saturday Night Live skits and revelations in Us Weekly.
"“In some ways, I think sports journalists on this one were more reticent than general media (to jump on the story)," Levin said. "If you look at the Today show and Good Morning America, they were all over this story. It may be because this is where their bread is buttered....if you’re really dependent on getting access to the celebrities or athletes, it can really compromise your objectivity.”
The guy with a photo feature on his Web site called "name that wedgie" is talking about journalistic objectivity?
Sure enough. And he also says TMZ doesn't pay for interviews, and didn't pay to secure it's biggest scoop ever, the death of Michael Jackson. "If you pay for an interview, there’s an incentive to lie," Levin said. "There’s no way of independently corroborating what they're telling you. It's different if you buy a photo or a video or a voice mail. The facts in that photo or video will not change. It’s no different than hiring a freelance cameraman."
Just as I realize Levin has set himself up for his own celebrity scandal -- though I guess "TMZ pays for interview!" would be much of a surprise headline -- Levin drops another contradiction: This famously in-your-face gossip site turned down the infamous voice mail recording Us Weekly published of Woods asking a woman to cover up evidence of their contact (perhaps they couldn't cut a deal?). He says the site is getting too many lurid details (?!) from people looking for a payoff.
"I think this has become a work relief program for cocktail waitresses," he said, laughing. "How many of them are going to come forward? How many of them are real or not? Whenever there’s money to be made, you've got to be careful."
Levin's prediction: Sports journalists will increasingly lose the fear of losing access to big stars over personal stories, because the interest is too big to ignore. "The Associated Press is hiring cub reporters to cover clubs, it’s only a matter of time before sports departments do that, too," he said. "There’s a barrier that I think traditional media have..you don’t want to do a story that will upsets someone you need to sit down with some time in the future. You have to free yourself from that."