TMZ started back in 2005, but it wasn’t until Mel Gibson decided to drive drunk and disparage Jews in 2006 that the site kicked into gear. A year later what had once been just a website became a nationally syndicated TV show–and the #1 gossip engine (so far) of the 21st century began its true ascent. Now the TMZ formula of gossip about celebrities and almost celebrities is a $55 million a year biz.
TMZ practices a new form of celeb journalism–it’s transparency without the old rules and it’s fast and mostly unfiltered. Years ago a big media organization might have killed the racist tape and had a quiet talk with LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling–keeping things “civilized.” Not TMZ founder Harry Levin. He may seem to traffic in the tasteless, but a recent Buzzfeed profile claims he’s really a populist–a fighter against hypocrisy and the abuse of power by the people who run things. TMZ brings everybody down. Except when it doesn’t–which is the strange thing. Sometimes it sits on gossip it has–keeps it in “the vault.” Why? Because if you have video of a 15-year-old Justin Bieber telling racist jokes–video that could damage his career–then you can make him do things by not showing it. Buzzfeed points out that TMZ leads the league in Bieber exclusives: was the young singer held hostage by the racist joke tape? Is the vault filled with celebrity misdeeds–misdeeds TMZ leverages to get what it wants? Is Harry Levin the new J. Edgar Hoover?