How TMZ and Harvey Levin get the dirt

harvey-levin-tny-crop.jpgThe New Yorker's Letter from Los Angeles in the new issue is a deep dive into the practices of TMZ and the site's leader, Harvey Levin. "TMZ resembles an intelligence agency as much as a news organization, and it has turned its domain, Los Angeles, into a city of stool pigeons," writes Nicholas Schmidle (with photo of Levin by Peter Bohler.) The story gets some details on payments made to sources and insider emails showing how TMZ has its tentacles inside airlines, casinos, limo services and other sources on celebrity dirt.

Indeed, the site has built a deep network of sources, including entertainment lawyers, reality-television stars, adult-film brokers, and court officials, allowing Levin to knock down the walls that guard celebrity life. (He declined repeated requests for an interview.) TMZ has paid at least one mole inside B.L.S., a limousine service, to provide lists of celebrity customers, their planned routes, and the license-plate numbers of their vehicles. (In a 2015 e-mail, a TMZ employee asked colleagues if anyone had yet established a source at Uber.) Justin Kaplan, a former production associate at TMZ, recalls meeting a B.L.S. source—“a Hispanic gentleman”—at a gas station in Van Nuys, handing over an envelope filled with cash, and receiving in return a client list. The process had been so well honed, Kaplan told me, that “we barely said a word to each other.”

At least one employee of Delta Airlines supplies TMZ with the names and itineraries of celebrity passengers travelling through Los Angeles and New York. In an e-mail dated January 29, 2014, a TMZ manager informed her colleagues that the star of an ABC drama had been spotted sitting in first class, in seat 2A, on Delta Flight 1061, from Orlando to Los Angeles, when his plane was rerouted to Dallas—the result of a bomb threat issued on Twitter. Such information helps TMZ’s crew of a dozen or so paparazzi know when and where to “drop in on” a celebrity who is transiting through an airport. One day’s list, from June, 2010, included the flight details for Robert Redford and Jack Kevorkian; another one, two months later, had the itineraries of Julius Erving, Kathy Ireland, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. “It’s not an accident the guy with a camera is waiting at the Delta check-in counter at 8 A.M.,” a former TMZ employee wrote, anonymously, on Defamer, a Hollywood site owned by Gawker.

TMZ resembles an intelligence agency as much as a news organization, and it has turned its domain, Los Angeles, into a city of stool pigeons. In an e-mail from last year, a photographer reported having four airport sources for the day, including “Harold at Delta, Leon at Baggage service, Fred at hudson news, Lyle at Fruit and nut stand.” A former TMZ cameraman showed me expense reports that he had submitted in 2010, reflecting payments of forty or fifty dollars to various sources: to the counter girl at a Beverly Hills salon, for information on Goldie Hawn; to a valet, for Pete Sampras; to a shopkeeper, for Dwight Howard; and to a waiter, for Hayden Christensen. “Everybody rats everybody else out,” Simon Cardoza, a former cameraman for the site, told me. “That’s the beauty of TMZ.”

The story also traces Levin's career arc from Cleveland High School in Reseda to UC Santa Barbara and law school, through "People's Court" and the LA Times law column, and his stints as a reporter at both KNBC and CBS 2, then on to TMZ. (How did they leave out Levin's voicing in "Volcano"? Also this:

The attention that Levin receives is not always so adulatory. The estranged husband of a former sitcom star recently made threats against him, persuading him to take on a twenty-four-hour security detail. The Guardian, in a 2009 profile of Levin, referred to him as the “high prince of sleaze.” Alec Baldwin, who has been the subject of several harsh TMZ stories—including one, from 2007, in which the site posted a voice-mail recording of Baldwin calling his eleven-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig”—told me, “There was a time when my greatest wish was to stab Harvey Levin with a rusty implement and watch his entrails go running down my forearm, in some Macbethian stance. I wanted him to die in my arms, while looking into my eyes, and I wanted to say to him, ‘Oh, Harvey, you thoughtless little pig.’ ” Baldwin added, “He is a festering boil on the anus of American media.”

But for some the significance of the Sterling and Rice stories called for a reassessment. In 2014, Adweek named Levin the digital editor of the year, noting, “Whatever topic your co-workers are talking about around the water-cooler, they probably read it first at TMZ.”

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Magazines stories on LA Observed:
Mary Melton exits as Los Angeles Magazine sold
Media notes: Nikki Finke going to Harvard, local Ellies and more
Janice Min leaving THR, Matthew Belloni upped
Read the LA Times response to Los Angeles Magazine's piece
LA Magazine says editor Davan Maharaj is what's wrong with the LA Times*
Brian Lowry to CNN and more media notes
How TMZ and Harvey Levin get the dirt
LA's breast fixation and more greatest hits from Los Angeles Mag