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Harvey Levin TMZ YouTube.jpg

How TMZ Became the Go-To Gossip Site for Spinning Away Celebrity Allegations

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | August 9, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | August 9, 2023 |

Harvey Levin TMZ YouTube.jpg

Over the past few months, there have been some major reports in the world of celebrity pertaining to allegations of misconduct, harassment, and abuse. None of this is necessarily new, but in the post-#MeToo atmosphere, we are hyper-aware of how this news cycle unfolds and the ways it is quickly weaponized against victims. Jonathan Majors will soon be in a courtroom after being accused of physically assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Lizzo is now being sued for sexual harassment from several of her former employees. In cases like this, we’re painfully cognisant of the reality of PR, of how facts seldom matter in the face of who has the louder voice and can accumulate the most support through that. It’s not hard to get the general public to side with their favourite celebrity over an unnamed or unknown accuser. Fame just works like that. But greasing the wheels is still a seedy necessity, and, as both Majors and Lizzo proved, there is one publication more eager than the others to participate in such spin.

TMZ sucks. Let’s just get that out of the way. They’re cruel, misogynistic, seemingly devoid of a moral compass, proud little bullies, and low-class profiteers of hate. None of this is brand-new information. It’s not as though we have crowds of people trying to argue in favour of its unimpeachable journalistic integrity. For a lot of the internet, it’s closer to Perez Hilton than NPR, the Daily Mail to People Magazine’s New York Times. What keeps people paying attention to the site is their strange reliability for certain areas of celeb coverage. They’re ruthlessly efficient at reporting celebrity deaths, for instance. They were the first site to break the news of Mel Gibson’s arrest and obtained footage of his anti-Semitic and misogynistic rant. You feel gross for linking to TMZ but they aren’t necessarily unreliable in terms of basic reporting. If TMZ says that, for example, your favourite actor just got married and they have the wedding certificate to prove it, that’s a real scoop. There’s truth there. It’s the spin where things get seedier.

It’s tough to ignore the intensely sexist tone and framing of TMZ articles, so mired in sleaze that they make even their right-wing contemporaries seem calmer by comparison. This is, alas, the default mode for much of mainstream celebrity gossip, at least from the most well-circulated publications (hello, the Sidebar of Shame.) It’s one of the reasons our stomachs sink when we see ‘sources’ running to the site to ‘tell their side of the story’ when serious allegations of misconduct emerge. The bluntness of TMZ cannot help, however, but stand out amid a crowded field. As we talked about in this piece on Majors’ team trying to push back against his recent arrest, TMZ’s language traffics in dog whistles and casual sexism that let its agenda be known loud and clear. The vaguest sheen of journalistic fervour they have smeared across themselves allows them to get away with a lot, and for it to be accepted as wholesale truth for a sizeable portion of their intended audience.

As Anne Helen Petersen noted in a 2014 Buzzfeed piece on TMZ, the company is a well-oiled machine when it comes to hunting down exclusives. They’re known for keeping staffers in the Los Angeles Courthouse, where they pour over documents for any sort of exclusive, whether it’s a DUI arrest or a divorce. This practice is not unique to them but they certainly invest more into this aspect than their competition. They also outright own many of their video exclusives, either by paying off sources (remember the Beyonce-Jay Z-Solange elevator video?) or through their own band of hard-hearted paparazzi. They’ll pay whatever is required, which isn’t always an ethical way of gathering information but it’s proven economical for them and other similar publications. Many have speculated that TMZ pays off government and hospital employees for stories, something Levin stridently denies.

TMZ aren’t just there for the hardcore accused abusers. They’re ready to align themselves with anyone who has the correct information and willingness to play ball. It’s been notable, for example, how many of the exclusive ‘source’ reports related to the recent Ariana Grande-Ethan Slater drama went through TMZ. As Petersen noted, the site has a strange relationship with other clients of Grande’s manager, Scooter Braun, most notably Justin Bieber. TMZ acquired a video of Bieber making a racist joke but kept it in their vault for several years before releasing it. Before that, they had a lot of exclusives with Bieber, from an interview over his new haircut to images of him with his then-girlfriend Selena Gomez. ‘The list of exclusives extends for pages, suggesting a close collaboration between TMZ and Bieber’s management,’ Petersen says, something that is further strengthened by the recent sea of Grande sources to the site. It’s certainly a tit-for-tat relationship, and one many celebrities and their teams foster. This is par for the course, as many a People exclusive can attest. You keep the press cozy and satiated so they don’t turn their backs on you. But People turning against you is far less terrifying a prospect than TMZ doing so.

Levin has often been called out for his misogyny, bully tactics, and fostering of macho culture. Gossip is typically coded as a feminine activity, but TMZ is stridently masculine. The offices are polluted with bros, the headlines are blatantly anti-female at times, and the header images seldom flattering to even the prettiest of women. It’s no surprise the work is so sexist when the workplace has faced multiple credible accusations of toxicity towards female employees. In 2013, former TMZ staffer Catherine “Taryn” Hillin filed suit against TMZ executive producer Evan Rosenblum for gender discrimination, claiming she was told by multiple employees that ‘TMZ hates women’ and favours male employees. She also alleged that Rosenblum ‘routinely yelled at and humiliated’ her, calling her ‘f*cking shit’ and telling her, ‘Don’t be a girl.’

I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy of patriarchal rule at TMZ. It’s more that they’re just the most cold-bloodedly resourceful version of a tried-and-tested business model. They know there’s money to be made in bigotry combined with celebrity, and they’re aware that a glut of gossip reporting is rooted in a moralizing slant that readers secretly crave. Levin may talk about his standards but it’s clear that, if such a thing even exists in his realm, it’s a malleable concept. His stream of content and revenue relies on there being no depths to the swamp.

So, why do so many celebrities accused of bad behaviour of varying degrees of seriousness use TMZ so regularly? Because they want to harness that tone and intent for their own means. They’re not supposed to play dirty, at least not so openly. People tries to keep it clean, dignified, safe enough so that any celebrity can join in. TMZ will happily do the filthy work, use all the language you’re not supposed to. And people will listen because there’s real power in cutting out all the BS to leave the raw, aggressive heart at the centre of the spin.

There are no winners in this nasty game aside from TMZ. Not the celebrities who will be turned against by fans, the press, and TMZ themselves once the money stops rolling in. Not audiences, who must wade through ceaseless hate as it overwhelms any sense of truth or justice. Not the victims, who can never hope to combat such a monied machine with no eagerness to play on an even field. As Petersen put it, ‘while the impulse to demystify and deconstruct the celebrity images that propagate restrictive understandings of what “normal” or “beautiful” are is, indeed, admirable, it’s difficult to endorse organizations that can only wield equally destructive language and editorial ethos in order to accomplish those aims.’ So, the next time you see ‘sources’ running to TMZ, remember that their intentions are seldom rooted in good faith, and that for-profit hate reigns supreme for a reason.