Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Saturday, 12 September 2009 09:56 UK

'Maverick' TMZ earns respect

By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson's death put TMZ in the global spotlight

When Michael Jackson was rushed to hospital it was TMZ, the Hollywood-based showbiz website, that broke the news.

The site, which launched in December 2005, already had a track record of getting the inside scoop on major entertainment stories.

TMZ broke the news of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade against a police officer, and it was the first to publish the photograph of a bruised Rihanna after she was assaulted by Chris Brown.

But it was the Jackson story that focused attention on the site more than ever before. Mainstream media outlets struggled to confirm the singer's death while TMZ had details that proved to be accurate.

Once viewed as a bunch of mavericks, the site won the grudging respect of established news organizations.

Contacts book

Harvey Levin
We have contacts and a lot of people who trust us - they know that we are going to be accurate and fair
Harvey Levin

TMZ stands for Thirty-Mile Zone, an old Hollywood expression that describes the area where the studios are based and where most celebrities happen to live.

The website is edited by the veteran Hollywood reporter and lawyer, Harvey Levin, who is widely recognized as having one of the best contact books in the business.

"I really think that's our calling card," says Mr Levin.

"We have contacts and a lot of people who trust us. They know that we are going to be accurate and fair. A lot of the people we deal with are people who don't generally deal with the media. Ultimately it's all based on trust," he adds.

The site's success has won respect and admiration from some of Hollywood's veteran reporters.

"Everybody looks to TMZ now," says Jeanne Wolf, west coast editor of Parade magazine.

"They have some terrific sources - not just that will give them the news quickly, but that will give them video, photographs. It's amazing."

Mr Levin says TMZ does not get information from people who work in hospitals although he acknowledges that the site uses "law enforcement" sources.

According to Ms Wolf, the website has tapped into a rich seam of information.

"If you're out there risking your life as a policeman, as a detective... you're sick of celebrities getting away with things, you're sick of criminals getting away with things," she explains.

"If you have someone's ear you can whisper into and you know that your confidentiality will be held, you're going to call."

New culture

Levin says there is a misconception that, as in the world of tabloid journalism, TMZ pays for its stories.

"I will not pay for interviews," he insists, saying people are more likely to embellish their stories if a cheque is in the offing.

They give a quick answer but it's not a staged set up, they haven't got their stage makeup
News manager Mike Walters on impromptu celebrity interviews

But he adds: "We'll pay for video and for photos. But everybody does."

The TMZ newsroom, with its bright lights and casually-dressed team of young journalists, feels more like a TV studio.

The space is also used to produce the site's syndicated television show, which makes use of video shot by freelance photographers that hang around Hollywood's clubs, restaurants, shops and even gyms.

The practice has spawned a new culture in Hollywood of camera operators carrying out impromptu interviews with celebrities.

"I don't call it ambushing," says Mike Walters, TMZ's news manager.

"They give a quick answer but it's not a staged set up, they haven't got their stage makeup on.

"People really enjoy the natural environment, the moving, the rawness compared to the old sit-down, put-the-microphone-on interviews."

Playing along

It is a response to what Mr Levin describes as "pack journalism" where media outlets work with publicists to secure the same celebrity interviews.

Hollywood studios hold "junkets" which are staged events, usually at a posh Los Angeles hotel, for reporters to each interview a movie or TV star for a few minutes to promote the release of their latest project.

The TMZ way of interviewing celebrities is the antithesis of the junket.

"They have no idea what we're going to ask them when they're walking out so they're raw. The instant answer is the best answer usually, it's the most witty and funny," says Mr Walters.

Many celebrities have become astute in playing along with TMZ and other new media outlets

It is generally accepted that Hollywood stars that dine at restaurants which are favourite paparazzi haunts are well aware of the cat and mouse game they are involved in.

"This is a give and take relationship," says Mr Walters.

"Celebrities need the media - especially people like TMZ to make them relevant. That's the business - you're on the cover of the magazine, you're on TMZ tonight, you're on the website, you're in a new movie."

But not everyone gets wrapped up in the tabloid frenzy.

"There are plenty of celebrities who get married without us knowing, who go out to dinner without us knowing, who take their kids to the park," says Ms Wolf.

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