Celebrity-watching Web site coming to Washington

March 18, 2007|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,Los Angeles Times

Washington -- In Hollywood, the Web site TMZ.com has already transformed celebrity culture, putting stars on notice that cell-phone-toting tattlers and aggressive paparazzi are ready to splash their indiscretions all over cyberspace.

Now, the site that first disclosed Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant and the medications stored in Anna Nicole Smith's refrigerator is coming to the nation's capital. And local denizens are wondering why.

Sometimes called "Hollywood for ugly people," Washington usually rewards policy wonks. Think earmarks, fine print, protocols.

But Arianna Huffington, who hosted A-list parties in Washington as the wife of a prominent congressman, says D.C. will not bore the gossip-hungry public. "Let's see, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham, Ted Haggard, Claude Allen at Target, William Jefferson's frozen 90 Gs, the Bush twins, Scooter Libby, Ann Coulter, Deborah Jeane Palfrey and her 10,000-name trick book. Too boring? I don't think so," she said.

Asked whether she thought TMZ would trivialize electoral politics, Huffington demurred. "Give the public some credit. It can tell the difference between the main course and dessert."

TMZ is named for the "thirty-mile zone" around Los Angeles that includes much of Hollywood's glitterati. Some think the market for gossip in Washington is already saturated, with the Politico, Wonkette and Smoking Gun Web sites already scouring the city, and a corps of card-carrying gossip writers working for magazines and newspapers.

TMZ has proved itself skilled in catching its targets at their most unflattering moments. In addition to obsessive coverage of Paris Hilton and the aftermath of Smith's death, the site is known for posting footage of Seinfeld star Michael Richards' racial rant, which an audience member captured on a cellphone video camera at an L.A. comedy club. The site has a staff of 25 and, unlike traditional news outlets, has been known to pay for news and photo scoops.

Its reward: 8.4 million visitors last month, beating such sites as People.com, according to comScore Media Metrix, an audience measurement firm.

Some predict that TMZ, a joint venture between AOL and Warner Bros.' Telepictures Productions, will further erode the line between news and gossip.

Political scientist John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University worries that "if a politician's private life is further curtailed," only colorless people will run for office.

But who knows, Geer said, "it might even become a sign of power and influence if you are important enough to be gossiped about."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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