The Man Who Broke the “Mad Mel” Story
By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/6/2006 8:00:00 PM
In the race to serve up the juiciest scoop in Hollywood, the clear winner in the Mel Gibson DUI scandal last week was celebrity gossip Website TMZ.com, co-owned by Time Warner's AOL and Telepictures TV-production unit. The site's managing editor, investigative TV journalist/producer and attorney Harvey Levin, broke the news of the actor/filmmaker's arrest in Malibu, Calif., on July 28. Levin revealed that Gibson had gone on a tirade that included anti-Semitic comments, although law-enforcement officers, trying to protect him, had omitted four crucial pages about his behavior from a publicly released arrest report.
As other media scrambled, the repercussions were swift: Gibson, in full-out career-protection mode, quickly entered rehab and issued two public apologies; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched an internal investigation; Hollywood power players publicly chose sides; Disney struggled over how to distribute Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, in December, while the company's ABC network dropped his Holocaust-themed miniseries in development.
The resulting tidal wave of publicity for TMZ—Levin spent virtually all of Monday and Tuesday speaking to 75-100 media outlets—will likely prompt Telepictures to speed up its long-term expansion plans for the site. Plans are under way to venture into TV and other media, including cellphones, and to broaden its online content choices to include a wider array of pop-culture topics.
TMZ, described as a “24/7 on-demand entertainment-news network” incorporating video clips, investigative stories, photographs and blogs, launched late last year with a staff of more than 20 after Levin's previous project, Telepictures' syndicated Celebrity Justice, folded after three years.
The name TMZ refers to a vague production term for the Thirty Mile Zone surrounding Los Angeles. Its popularity has risen rapidly, with more than 10 million unique page views in July and 11 million-plus expected this month, thanks to what has become known as Melgate.
Until now, TMZ had primarily been known for hot but less noteworthy stories, including the exclusive and infamous 3½-minute-long video featuring the notorious Hollywood club-hopping heir Brandon Davis, grandson of late billionaire Marvin Davis, who was shown dissing Lindsay Lohan with the encouragement of Paris Hilton.
Levin took some time last week to speak to B&C's Jim Benson about what led to the huge story, his current working relationship with the TV side of Time Warner and TMZ's operating philosophy.
How did you break this story?
Around noon on [July 28], we got a tip that an arrest had happened. Around 2 p.m., I got ahold of somebody with connections to the [Los Angeles County Sheriff's] Department who was very familiar with what had happened. I know a lieutenant at the West Hills [sheriff's] station. I told her I had heard that Gibson was saying “f---ing Jews” … and she denied it. I just didn't believe her. Her voice sounded nervous, and, as it turned out, she was one of those involved in the cover-up. I pushed some great sources the rest of the day, and, at 7:30 p.m., about an hour before we posted the story, [a sheriff's spokesman] called to say the entire story was wrong. … Sometime later, I got the four-page transcript [of Gibson's arrest report], and when I called [the spokesman] back with it, he changed his story, saying they were going to turn the full report over to the D.A.
How soon after you posted the story and transcript did you start getting media calls?
Very quickly. It grew over the weekend and exploded.
Is there anything you can tell me about how you were able to get your hands on a sheriff's arrest report supposedly locked away in a safe?
No. There is a huge investigation to find out, and I don't intend to help them.
Since you're part of the same corporate family and work in the same offices as the TV magazine Extra, were you able to help it with this story in any way?
We have a loose relationship with them. This was a hard story. It broke on a Friday night after all the [TV entertainment news]magazines went to bed. By Monday morning, it was all over the place. That is the difference between a TV show and a Website. You can serve up stories on demand. But I did go on [Extra] last night to give them the latest information I had.
How do you normally share exclusive information you get with Extra?
I'm not giving away any trade secrets.
Unlike entertainment TV magazines, which risk losing access to celebrities if they go too far overboard, your Website uses material from the paparazzi and seems fairly publicist-proof.
A lot of what we use you will also see on TV. We're not using things that are crazy, ill-gotten or obtained illegally. We're certainly not trying to be cruel to anybody. We purposely have tried to make this site have a different feel than TV. It is unvarnished, but we are credible journalists. That's why we have grown every single month in terms of traffic and our overall breadth and depth.
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