Last November, TMZ broke the news that the Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston was being investigated by the Tallahassee Police Department over an allegation that he had sexually abused a fellow student at Florida State University.
In April, it posted an audio recording of the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks.
And on Monday, it published a video showing Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator in Atlantic City.
This remarkable string of scoops has highlighted the unexpected power and reach of a gossip website that’s not even 10 years old. But maybe most surprising of all has been the nature of the stories. TMZ, which built a following by exposing the foibles of Hollywood celebrities — often by paying for tips — is now taking aim at a whole new category of prominent people and powerful institutions, including the country’s richest, most popular sports league. And its reporting is having an impact.
TMZ’s revelations prompted Sterling’s lifetime ban from the N.B.A. and forced him to sell the team. Its video of Rice has not only cost him his N.F.L. contract — and perhaps career — but also raised questions about why the league hadn’t obtained the footage itself. The Rice video has also prompted a national conversation about domestic abuse — playing out on social media under the hashtags #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed — that even the White House has felt compelled to weigh in on. (“Stopping domestic violence is something that’s bigger than football,” President Obama said Monday through his press secretary, Josh Earnest.)
As strange as it may sound given most of TMZ’s typical fare — on Tuesday, it posted photos of the socialite Paris Hilton buying a sandwich from a Manhattan Subway — the site’s aggressive coverage of these cases is part of a long journalistic history. Tabloids have always trafficked in gossip and scandal-mongering. The idea was never just to titillate, though; it was, at least in part, to hold the rich and powerful accountable.
“The tabloid was a rebellion against the established social order,” said Neal Gabler, the author of “Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity,” placing TMZ squarely in this tradition. “TMZ is an agent provocateur. It’s there to penetrate the veil so that the people on the inside cannot erect these barriers and protect themselves. And that’s what the tabloid is all about.”
Of course, it’s easier to penetrate the veil when you’re willing to pay for information, not to mention audio and video recordings, which TMZ does routinely and unapologetically. It generates revenues primarily via advertising on its website and through the syndication of its hourlong TV show, “TMZ Live,” which airs on Fox.
Based in Los Angeles, TMZ is the brainchild of Harvey Levin, a 64-year-old Southern California native with a law degree from the University of Chicago. The letters stand for Thirty Mile Zone, a reference to the radius around Hollywood within which most of the studios are based.
Levin, who declined to be interviewed for this article, worked for years as a legal specialist on local radio and TV before achieving a measure of prominence during the O. J. Simpson trial. In 1997, he became the host and legal analyst on a revival of “The People’s Court.” Several years later, he created and produced his own newsmagazine show, “Celebrity Justice,” about the legal issues facing celebrities.
When “Celebrity Justice” was taken off the air in 2005, Levin started developing TMZ for what was then AOL-Time Warner. The site’s first big scoop came in the summer of 2006, when it secured a copy of Mel Gibson’s arrest report for drunken driving, complete with outtakes from an obscenity-laced, anti-Semitic tirade.
From there, TMZ quickly evolved into one of America’s biggest celebrity news sites. Among other things, it broke the story of Michael Jackson’s death a full hour before most of the mainstream media.
When Time Warner spun off AOL in 2009, it retained TMZ. The site does not make for a seamless fit with the rest of the company’s more traditional media assets, but if nothing else, it may partly inoculate Time Warner’s businesses — including the Warner Brothers studios and HBO — against some of TMZ’s less flattering coverage.
TMZ decided to move beyond Hollywood and into sports after it helped break the story of Tiger Woods’s extramarital indiscretions. The logic was simple, driven home by the public’s seemingly unending interest in Woods’s off-the-course activities: Sports are now their own form of pop culture, and some of our biggest celebrities are athletes.
It took TMZ Sports a few years to start breaking big stories, but its moment seems to have arrived, even if there’s still some mystery around how the site gets its scoops. In the case of Winston, a local reporter contacted the Tallahassee police about the matter days before TMZ, but TMZ still somehow got the story first.
“There are a lot of stories on which TMZ absolutely eats our lunch,” said Tommy Craggs, the editor of the website Deadspin, a pioneer in sports gossip and hard-nosed reporting owned by Gawker Media. “They have more money and better resources, and when they want to be, they’re every bit as gutsy as we like to think we are.”
It is impossible to separate the impact of TMZ’s Rice scoop from the way it was delivered — via a vérité video taken inside a casino elevator. It was, you could say, the opposite of gossip; it was powerful, verified proof of Rice’s brutal behavior.
Like many of the most compelling tabloid stories, Rice’s is also easily shaped into a parable. Before the release of TMZ’s video, he was going to serve a two-game suspension, a punishment that was widely criticized as too lenient. But within just hours of its publication, his team, the Baltimore Ravens, terminated his contract, and the N.F.L. was put on the defensive.
“It’s our expectation that a price is going to be paid,” Gabler said. “That’s the payoff of these tabloid narratives.”
TMZ Broke Ray Rice, Donald Sterling and Jameis Winston Stories in 10-Month Span – The New York Times