Back in the last century, newspapers and magazines were thriving, “dead-tree journalism” wasn’t a widely-used term, and the broadcast networks and the record companies were the dominant purveyors of popular culture. If you took a poll on who the nation’s premiere investigative reporter was, the top answer likely would have been Washington Post Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward.
How times have changed.
This week--as millions of Americans are riveted on video of a pro football star brutally cold-cocking his then-fiancée now-wife Janay Palmer, with a left hook in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, much as they were fixated last April on an audio tape of a billionaire basketball team owner making racist remarks to his mistress—the answer would not be Woodward.
Instead, it could easily be a diminutive, well-muscled, perma-tanned Los Angeles attorney turned celebrity scandal-monger who stars in the cheesy syndicated television show, The People’s Court, and nine years ago launched an online Hollywood gossip site known as TMZ.
“Harvey Levin, in my opinion, is the best investigative journalist in the country,” says Evan Rosenblum, the longtime executive producer of TMZ.com and, for the past 15 months, of TMZ Sports, which broke the Ray Rice and Donald Sterling stories. “Harvey is an amazing journalist. He is so smart and so tenacious. Where other reporters make ten phone calls, Harvey makes a hundred. And he is strategic. He’s very thoughtful about how to handle a story, and he’s not just thinking about where the story is now, he’s thinking about where the story is going to go—and how do we get to the truth?”
Levin (who, full disclosure, discussed an offer of employment with this writer in 2006) was unavailable for comment, his spokeswoman said. Rosenblum owes his job to the 64-year-old Levin—who named TMZ for the “Thirty-Mile Zone,” Hollywood shorthand for the geographical area where the major studios are located—so he might be expected to flatter his boss.
But he isn’t alone.
“This was the first weekend of the NFL season,” says football maven Mark Mravic, assistant managing editor of Sports Illustrated’s popular MMQB blog, “and Monday morning [when TMZ Sports posted the Rice video] people should have been talking about Tony Romo and how the Patriots lost to the Dolphins and all this stuff that happened that we’ve been building to after nine months since the Superbowl. And nobody’s talking about the football games this week.”
Instead, as a result of TMZ’s blockbuster scoop, staffers of the iconic sports journal had to scramble to produce a Ray Rice Video cover story in the desperate hours before Monday night’s closing.
TMZ “is applying to sports the hardcore tabloid-type approach that has worked so well for them when they are covering celebrities,” Mravik says. “And there really hasn’t been an outlet that’s been doing that in sports. It shows what can be done when you can actually start digging around and you’re willing to pay a lot of money for things--if that’s exactly how TMZ is getting these clips. There aren’t other outlets that are willing to do that. Honestly, some of it is a public good. Obviously, what’s happening now with Ray Rice is good.”
Baltimore Sun television columnist David Zurawik has been positively effusive. “God bless TMZ again and again,” he wrote this week. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, meanwhile, devoted the first 23 minutes of her Monday night program to TMZ’s latest scoop, calling it “the biggest story in the country…the highest-profile story about domestic violence for years in this country.”
Every other media outlet has been covering the controversy wall-to-wall, airing the gritty video (with the “TMZ Sports” watermark front and center) on an endless loop. Even President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have weighed in, with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest quoting the president as calling Rice’s assault of Palmer “contemptible” and adding that “hitting a woman is not something a real man does.”
Yet, while admitting that TMZ sometimes performs a valuable public service, not everyone is an unalloyed fan. “I can't say it makes me feel any less queasy about living in TMZ's world, which seems to me totally atavistic and morally null,” says David Roth, a columnist for the sports site SBNation.com. “But the sports discourse, especially, needs them too. So many of the big media players are afraid to jeopardize access, or personal relationships. I don't know that the answer to that is an outlet that seems so frankly anti-human and gross in so many ways, but I do suspect we wouldn't have seen this video without them, for better or worse.”
Rosenblum--who declines to discuss how or, for that matter, when the shocking video was acquired, and how much money changed hands--acknowledges that checkbook journalism has long been a part of TMZ’s modus operandi.
Indeed, he recalls that in November 2006 in the middle of the night when the accounting department of Telepictures (TMZ’s Time Warner-owned parent company) was fast asleep, he and Levin dug into their personal bank accounts and fronted $10,000 to pay for a cell phone video of Seinfeld star Michael Richards dropping N-bombs and other racist epithets at West Hollywood’s Laugh Factory during an angry tirade at African-American hecklers.
As for the Ray Rice video, “I won’t get into the specifics of this particular situation,” Rosenblum says, “but I will say that as a policy, we absolutely pay for video. As long as we can prove that it’s authentic and it’s real, we will absolutely pay—no different from any other news operation around the country, whether they admit it or not.”
Rosenblum also refuses to reveal how many days TMZ Sports had been in possession of the elevator video, leading to speculation that the media-savvy Levin held it back for maximum impact—waiting until Rice served out his National Football League-ordered punishment, an alarmingly lenient two-game suspension, and was getting ready to suit up for after Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I can’t comment on exactly how long we’ve had the video,” Rosenblum says. “I will say this: We have a policy here, and a track record, that when we get stuff in, we vet it, and we publish it as soon as possible. An example of that would be the original Donald Sterling audio—which we published around 10 o’clock on a Friday night, when Internet traffic isn’t exactly buzzing. But it was the soonest we felt comfortable, after we had thoroughly vetted the content of the post.”
Since early Monday—when TMZ Sports posted the grainy images of Baltimore Ravens running back Rice knocking Palmer unconscious, and dragging her like a ragdoll out of the elevator at the now-defunct Revel Casino—Harvey Levin and his web site have been basking in accolades.
Executives of the Ravens and the National Football League have been wallowing in shame, struggling to explain why the 27-year-old, 212-pound Rice—who on Monday was cut from his team and indefinitely banned by the league—was initially punished with the mere two-game suspension for his heinous attack on a vulnerable young woman.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose future is now at risk because of his mishandling of the affair, meted out the feeble two-game penalty last February after TMZ posted outside-the-elevator surveillance video of Rice pulling Palmer into the casino lobby. The incident resulted in Rice being charged with third-degree aggravated assault, a felony that could have earned him five years in prison had he not been permitted to enter a court-ordered program to learn how to argue nonviolently and expunge the arrest from his record.
As recently as Tuesday night on CBS News, Goodell has maintained—to universal skepticism in the media and beyond--that the NFL had diligently requested the elevator video last February, but was denied access by Atlantic City law enforcement authorities; nor, he claimed, had anyone in his office seen it until Monday morning (never mind that there were detailed, and accurate, descriptions of the video published months ago).
“At the very least, Roger Goodell has a terrible investigative team,” Rosenblum says, noting that TMZ Sports posted a report (illustrated by a photo of Goodell wearing a blindfold) that NFL officials never even asked the casino for the inside-the-elevator surveillance video. “That fact is pathetic…Here’s the bottom line: If Roger Goodell is telling the truth, and he never saw this video, it’s disgraceful. Because clearly he knew it exists. Our video that we posted in February, showing the aftermath [of the attack], with Ray dragging Janay out of the elevator, should have been a clue.”
TMZ Sports was formally launched as a separate vertical of the web site in June 2013, a week or so after Levin, Rosenblum, and co-executive producer Charles Latibeaudiere agreed that the sports world was an exceedingly rich target environment for TMZ’s mostly young staff of hungry tabloid warriors. The general web site had already scored an impressive number of down-and-dirty sports-related scoops, including early accounts in 2009 of the manic promiscuity of married golf star Tiger Woods, the 2010 rape allegation against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and, in 2008, an account of Shaquille O’Neal rapping in a New York club about his longtime antagonist Kobe Bryant, “Tell me how my ass tastes.”The general TMZ web site had also, by this time, supplied several blockbusters concerning entertainment figures—notably a career-ending scoop in July 2006 on Mel Gibson’s antisemitic rant to a Malibu cop, Alec Baldwin’s abusive voicemail message left in 2007 for his then-11-year-old daughter, as well as the 2008 death of Heath Ledger, and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson.
A company spokeswoman said TMZ—which also produces a snarkily entertaining behind-the-scenes syndicated show starring Levin and his young staff and carried largely on Fox Television stations—doesn’t discuss its business model or reveal its Web traffic or revenue. But Broadcasting & Cable reported that last year, it was a $55 million enterprise. Rosenblum says that these days some 200 employees operate out of an airplane hangar-sized building featuring a fully equipped exercise room--where gym-rat Levin can pump iron--in Marina Del Rey, near his home.
“Harvey loves the beach--that’s why he’s orange,” Rosenblum says. “He loves tanning.”
Rosenblum says Levin was actually out of town on vacation when negotiations for the latest video were occurring, but played a big role in its acquisition. “He was in a hut on a beach, but he wasn’t off the grid.”
Surely, in the brave new world of the online tabloids, few journalistic coups have enjoyed as much attention—or exploded with as much energy—as TMZ Sports’s Ray Rice scoop. Many outlets have received Pulitzer Prizes for less impactful stories. Maybe it will ultimately come to this: TMZ will one day win its own Pulitzer.
“Honestly, our focus is not on winning awards, it’s on trying to break news every day,” Rosenblum says. Back when the Leader of the Free World was compelled—for the first time, but not the last—to comment on TMZ’s handwork, “it was an amazing moment,” Rosenblum recalls. “It was a moment where Harvey and myself and Charles kind of looked at each other, and said: ‘Wow!’”