Gibson story clicks for TMZ's editor

Scoop proves a lethal publicity weapon for Levin and his Web site

could TV show be next?

August 06, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

It's hard to get Harvey Levin on the phone these days.

Unless, that is, you happen to have a raging scoop to report. For that, Levin will take your call immediately.

Otherwise, take a number.

"Harvey's on with CNN International," a harried assistant says, quickly rescheduling your interview.

"He just broke a story and he's obsessed," another underling confides at the appointed hour. "Can he talk to you later?"

Such has been Levin's life since July 28, when he and the Web site he runs, TMZ.com, broke the story of Mel Gibson's drunken driving arrest in Malibu, Calif., and revealed not only that Gibson had unleashed an anti-Semitic tirade on his arresting officer, but that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office had deleted that fact from its report on the matter.

The fallout from the story meant that Levin, who is TMZ's managing editor, was possibly the most sought-after journalist in America last week.

"I did 41 interviews on Monday," Levin says when he finally gets on the phone, sounding somewhat stressed. The attention, he says, is overwhelming.

"I'm not enjoying it. My head is spinning. I like to have the control of mapping things out, and I've lost that. It's just been a crazy story. All of a sudden people are talking TV shows."

Levin was referring to a proposal by his corporate overlords at Time Warner -- which owns TMZ through its America Online and Telepictures Productions units -- to create a television show around the site's key strengths, candid celebrity videos and Hollywood legal cases.

For Levin, television would be familiar territory. For 19 years, he was co-executive producer of The People's Court and then created Celebrity Justice. He spent more than a decade as a reporter at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and seven years as a legal columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Born in Los Angeles in 1950, Levin graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he vividly remembers the campus riots that defined the Vietnam War. In 1972, he went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to work toward a doctoral degree in political science, but abandoned that quest and opted for a law degree from the University of Chicago. He then became a litigator for a Los Angeles law firm and taught law at three universities.

Levin's legal background served as the foundation of his TV and newspaper careers and of his work at TMZ, which launched in December.

"He's a terrifying cyborg, sent back through time to get court documents," says Claude Brodesser-Akner, a former Variety reporter who has worked for Levin since June. The site, he says, is trying to take Hollywood journalism beyond the standards that have dictated traditional reporting about the industry and its players.

"We don't deal with publicists so much," Brodesser-Akner says. "We pop out of their garbage cans."

More seriously, he says, TMZ is using the immediacy of the Internet to beat Variety and The Hollywood Reporter at their own game.

"We like to send our exclusives out as soon as they happen," he says, "and the trades like to save their exclusives for their print editions, which is why we're going to eat their lunch."

The Gibson story is a case in point. Although TMZ appears to have transcended its own paparazzi roots by breaking a good number of exclusives about Hollywood figures since its inception, the actor's arrest suddenly separated it from the pack of L.A.-centric Web sites and trade publications.

"It's been great for the Web site," Levin says from his office in Los Angeles, where he and former Movielink executive Alan Citron, the site's general manager, supervise a crew of more than 20 reporters, photographers and video camera operators. "It's defining for the Web site. We've broken a lot of stories, but this makes it clear that TMZ is a force to reckon with in entertainment journalism."

In the three days after Gibson's arrest, TMZ's page views doubled, an AOL spokeswoman says. In all of July, the site had 50 million page views, a rise of 33 percent over June, according to Nielsen/NetRankings.

"It's been hard to take it in," says Levin, who is unmarried, with a canine housemate named Floyd. "I can't compare it to anything. The Gibson story fires on all cylinders. It's got all the elements -- celebrity, religion, the sheriff's department, special treatment, the underbelly of Hollywood, you name it."

TMZ stands for "30-mile zone," a term coined in a 1920s Hollywood labor union contract that allowed studios to avoid paying for production crews' overnight stays if a film was being shot within a 30-mile radius of the Writers Guild of America West headquarters -- now the Beverly Center mall.

"That's archetypal Hollywood," Levin says.

On July 28, the day he got the Gibson scoop, Levin knew it was going to be big. After confirming it -- and persuading a source to give him copies of the arresting officer's redacted report -- Levin says he paused before launching the story into cyberspace.

"I remember staring at that button for about two minutes," he says. "I thought, this will unleash so much, this will be a huge story. How could it not be? Every important story, I had a knot in my stomach. This time, I really had a knot."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Harvey Levin

Age:

56

Born:

Los Angeles

Education:

University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Chicago Law School

Career:

Inactive member, State Bar of California; executive producer, Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation, (1986); associate producer, Madballs: Escape from Orb (1986); former executive producer, Celebrity Justice and The People's Court; former investigative reporter, KCBS-TV, Los Angeles; won or shared nine Emmy awards for various shows; former legal columnist, Los Angeles Times; former radio talk-show host, KABC and KMPC, Los Angeles.

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