The world was a less treacherous place for celebrities 10 years ago.
But around this time in 2005, Harvey Levin, a lawyer turned entertainment journalist, was toiling 16-hour days on a new media venture that would soon paint targets on the backs of the rich and the famous.
On Nov. 8, 2005, TMZ.com lurched into beta mode. The next day, the website scored its first big exclusive: a car crash video involving Paris Hilton.
A decade later, the impact of that grainy footage is now clear.
When TMZ officially launched a month later, on Dec. 8 of 2005, it promised an “insider” take on Hollywood, which now seems absurd. It would provide “in-depth interviews and articles,” equally absurd to anyone who’s since clicked on the site and read the punchy blurbs that appear to be written by a vulgarian in Grade 10.
Even some of those early features — “Star Catcher,” “Chatterzone,” “Photo Hub,” “Before They Were Stars” — belie a PR-driven vision of playing by the rules and making sure no celebrity looks bad.
TMZ top headlines from the past 10 years
Before TMZ was TMZ it was almost E!
But the Hilton footage altered the trajectory, or at least galvanized Levin’s outsider instincts. If his corporate overlords at AOL and Telepictures believed the website was in the business of out-peopling People or lining up beside Entertainment Tonight for inane scraps from almighty publicists, they were dead wrong.
Levin, who served as an analyst on The People’s Court and created the short-lived TV show Celebrity Justice, was always more Walter Winchell than Mary Hart. Having witnessed the O.J Simpson trial, he also grasped the payoff in mining the hostile but fertile terrain in Los Angeles between fame and infamy.
There was a choice to be made.
If Levin’s team went to junkets and loitered on the red carpet, part of the initial plan, they might discover what celebrities were eating, wearing, thinking, feeling or promoting. But if they built a shadowy network of loose-lipped sources in the darkest margins of Hollywood — inside the court system, in law enforcement, among medical first responders — they might uncover the stories the publicists had deftly smoke-screened for years.
Let everyone else have the fluff. TMZ wanted the dirt.
This hard news, hard evidence approach to what was historically soft content transformed the entertainment world and put celebrities on notice: your misdeeds were now fair play. Tips and documents would be chased down. Money would change hands, a traditional no-no in journalism.
The only goal was to “break the agenda,” to expose the stories that were supposed to remain hidden. Levin was determined to become the most feared man in Hollywood.
And on this, its 10th anniversary, TMZ’s greatest achievement comes from legitimizing gossip, from turning the blind items and unsubstantiated rumours that were once fodder for supermarket tabloids into verified stories that now circle the globe, destroying reputations with indiscriminate finality.
The list of TMZ exclusives is endless: Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade and drunk driving arrest; a picture of Rihanna’s battered face after she was beaten by Chris Brown; video of Paris Hilton going to jail; news of Britney Spears’ divorce; audio of Christian Bale’s enraged meltdown on the set of Terminator Salvation; Alec Baldwin’s voicemail message to his 11-year-old daughter, in which he calls her a “thoughtless little pig;” Donald Sterling’s racist tirade on the phone; Michael Richards’ racist tirade on a comedy stage; Tiger Woods’ sexual adventures and his marital implosion; and on and on and on.
TMZ fused the subversive spirit of the National Enquirer with the paper-of-record credibility of the New York Times and created a lurid hybrid: a celebrity-destroying machine powered by shock and schadenfreude. Levin’s prediction in 2005 has been realized: “We will become the must-see website for breaking entertainment stories.”
But on its way to controlling the celebrity news cycle, what impact has TMZ had on the wider culture? TMZ has been the first to report more celebrity deaths than anyone else over the last decade, including Michael Jackson, Paul Walker and Brittany Murphy. You could argue TMZ has turned death into a spectator sport. Obsessed with being first, fixated on the tick-tock of what happened, TMZ has ultimately desensitized us to tragedy and human loss.
Ten years later, it’s this curious mix of muckraking and no sense of proportion or decency that defines TMZ. You can’t argue with the site’s success or with the way it has rewritten the rules of celebrity journalism.
But you can wonder if we are somehow lesser for snickering in the red-and-black glow of so much misfortune.