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The scoop on the scoop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Already this year, a cameraman for TMZ.com was allegedly throttled by a disgruntled Woody Harrelson, and Paris Hilton gave the celebrity gossip Web site a weepy - and exclusive - interview about how its content hurt her feelings.

Now another luminary may have a bone to pick with the Web site: On Friday, Mel Gibson's arrest on suspicion of drunken driving and his subsequent anti-Semitic tirade were reported there. The story has since mushroomed online and in print, and there is speculation that the Walt Disney Co. will drop distribution of Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, because of it.

But stars - and the print publications that cover them - are going to have to get used to TMZ.com and its cousins, which are making over the realm of celebrity gossip. These online outlets, some of them with major corporate funding, maintain deep contacts in the entertainment industry, stake out nightclubs and post news at breakneck speed. The reaction in the gossip trades to the Gibson story recalls the disbelief of political reporters in the late 1990s when Matt Drudge's Web site broke ground on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The online revolution is reconfiguring all brands of journalism.

In recent months, Web sites such as TheSmokingGun.com and PerezHilton.com have scooped the glossy magazines like Us Weekly and In Style on stories ranging from 'N Sync singer Lance Bass' secret life as a gay man to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's romantic sojourns to Africa.

"We don't have time periods like television stations," says Harvey Levin, TMZ.com's managing editor, who broke the Gibson story. "We don't have publishing cycles. When we get a story right, we get a story up, and that's why we're able to win a lot."

The Gibson saga began early Friday, when the actor-director was arrested after allegedly speeding in his 2006 Lexus in Malibu, Calif., and registering a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. That evening, TMZ.com had the scoop, thanks to a tip to a staffer, a spokeswoman said.

Follow-up stories, including allegations of anti-Jewish comments that Gibson made to the arresting officer and previous drunken driving incidents, quickly followed on the site.

"They have access to something that the print world does not, which is immediacy," says Ray Richmond, an entertainment and media columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "That TMZ.com, which no one ever heard of six months ago, can become this player on this huge story, means that a new frontier has been reached."

Actually, TMZ.com has been around for a little longer than six months.

"Since November," Levin says.

The site bills itself as a "24/7 on-demand entertainment news network" and incorporates a combination of video clips, photographs, investigative stories and blogs. The name stands for Thirty Mile Zone, a nickname for California's entertainment locus.

TMZ.com is owned by AOL and Warner Bros. and has a staff of about 25; unlike many pop culture sites that rehash existing news stories, it prides itself on original reporting and flags scoops with an "exclusive" logo. It was the first group to obtain a copy of the birth certificate of Suri Cruise, the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. It revealed Beyonce's confrontation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at a posh New York City restaurant and first showed footage of Paris Hilton's friend cursing out the heiress's rival, Lindsay Lohan.

A half-century ago, celebrity gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper were among an anointed few with the insight, access - and occasionally, the payoffs - to include or exclude choice bits from the scandal sheets. But now almost anyone can be a celebrity journalist: Gawker.com solicits readers to post celebrity sightings.

When Levin - a former CBS and NBC television reporter who produced the show Celebrity Justice - was approached to develop the fledgling TMZ.com, he initially refused.

"I'm a TV guy," he says. "Bull-headed. But I started thinking, 'Wait a minute, we could marry video and text and photos. This could be great.'"

Others immediately sensed the online gossip field was for them. Perez Hilton says that reporting for his namesake site plays to his precise combination of skills, which include experience as a tabloid reporter and publicist. He broke the news when Pitt and Jolie, not then a couple, took a trip to Africa together. He also coined the now-ubiquitous Brangelina. And long before the newly out-of-the-closet Bass graced a recent cover of People, Hilton had the inside track.

"I've been talking about it since last summer," says the 28-year-old, who began his site two years ago.

Like TMZ.com, Hilton's site thrives on homegrown reporting, and milks contacts and friends in the entertainment industry. But he's a solo operator who still works from a West Hollywood cafe, where he gets Internet access.

"I call myself a gossip gangsta," Hilton says. "My stories get picked up in the mainstream. I break stories on a daily basis."

Accuracy and standards of celebrity news sites vary greatly. Some rely on tips from personal sources; the TMZ.com story on Gibson was linked to a police document. The Smoking Gun, which recently published a scathing letter to Lindsay Lohan from a movie production boss, often relies on court records and other public documents.

"We don't do gossip, which is at the core of a lot of celebrity Web sites," says William Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun, which uncovered the fabrications in James Frey's best-selling novel, A Million Little Pieces. "We don't do blind items or rumors. Everything we do is rooted in documents." The site is staffed by many former journalists and owned by Court TV.

Plastic-surgery speculation aside, some of the news that these publications are breaking is even worth reading, says Andrew Mendelson, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University who taught a seminar called "Image is Everything: Celebrities, the Paparazzi and the Practice of Journalism."

"Celebrities aren't just people; they're businesses," he said. "In many cases, they're powerful businesses. They have a lot of influence on how we spend our money."

"If Mel Gibson being arrested for drunk driving is verified and he's trying to present a wholesome, religious image, it's fair game," he said. "We should know there is a more complicated entity behind his image."

Editors at traditional celebrity gossip publications say that there's no doubt that some online gossip organizations know their stuff and make an always-competitive industry even more so.

"But we look at these sites the way newspapers look at wire services," says David Caplan, the New York bureau chief of Star magazine. "At the end of the day, it's up to us to advance the story."

Moreover, the Web sites - corporately owned or not - don't yet have the reporting muscle to get some stories, said Robert Thompson, professor of news media and popular culture at Syracuse University. Perez Hilton plans on remaining a one-man show. Star has at least four times the staff that the most established of the gossip sites does, Caplan says.

Traditional publications "have the budget to buy photos and long-standing relationships with handlers and publicists to get the story right from the celebrity," Thompson says. "Look at the Star Jones story. All this stuff was brewing about her getting fired and then People magazine gets her to talk about what happened."

Also, Caplan notes, Star and other magazines have had an online presence for years. Starmagazine. com, for instance, recently broke the news of the Dave Navarro-Carmen Electra split and of Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock's wedding in St. Tropez.

Other print outlets have also vowed to increase their online presence. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, recently launched www.pastdeadline.com, a blog that has broken some stories.

Meanwhile, the bloggers themselves are enjoying the spotlight, and some even hope to grace the pages of the mainstream media as stars in their own right. Perez Hilton is slated to have his own reality show.

"I call myself an entertainer," he says. "I can be a celebrity, too."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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