Harvey Levin: sultan of celebrity gossip

Harvey Levin is the ex-lawyer who heads up tmz.com, the celebrity gossip site that broke the news of Michael Jackson's death. His success has 'changed the game' in Hollywood.

In breaking the news of Michael Jackson's death, the carnivorous celebrity news site TMZ.com "hauled in the celebrity equivalent of Moby Dick". Almost as soon as an ambulance pulled up at Jackson's rented estate in Los Angeles, TMZ was posting the news. When the star was pronounced dead, TMZ had that too apparently beating the coroner's office by six minutes.

The site seemed to have sources everywhere: at the mansion, in the ambulance, in the corridors of UCLA Medical Centre. That's down to TMZ's editor and "ringmaster", Harvey Levin, "known as much for his consummate showmanship as his tireless working habits", says the Los Angeles Times. Having created the hottest gossip website on the planet (now a TV show too), Levin, 58, has himself become a celebrity. Although the site is owned by Time Warner, Levin runs the show. And by blending often unflattering and salacious content Levin has become the scourge of Hollywood.

TMZ stands for Thirty Mile Zone the greater Los Angeles area, where Hollywood lives, works and breathes. And there are few embarrassing human frailties that go undetected by its radar, says The Guardian. Amid the daily peek-a-boos of minor celebs parking their cars and looking fat in their bikinis, the site's big exclusives include Mel Gibson's anti-semitic ravings at a traffic cop, and fellow actor Alec Baldwin's brutal mobile phone rant at his 11-year-old daughter. As a result, "pond scum" and "Sultan of Sleeze" are some of the kinder epithets that have been thrown his way. Baldwin accused him of getting "an almost sexual level of pleasure from ruining other people's lives".

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Yet although rival gossip sites claim that Levin happily partnered to his bodybuilder-turned-chiropractor boyfriend finds the lure of his celebrity power irresistible, almost everyone who meets him remarks on his personable nature, says The Toronto Sun. An indefatigable reporter, he worked round the clock on the Jackson story and is renowned as a hard taskmaster with an almost maniacal interest in maintaining TMZ's reputation for accuracy.

That's as maybe, says The Guardian but surely Levin only gets his scoops because he pays people. This is legal, but most traditional US media newspapers find it morally offensive. Levin can sail close to the wind thanks to his grasp of privacy law. Having passed his bar exam in 1975, he taught law before becoming a legal reporter for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where he covered the OJ Simpson trial. He later became a legal analyst on The People's Court TV show, before dreaming up his own TV concept, Celebrity Justice. The show never really took off, says The Guardian. Undeterred, Levin launched TMZ.com modestly in December 2005. It swiftly gained a reputation as "the National Enquirer for the internet age".

Can TMZ build on its Jackson success? "News people are certainly starting to take TMZ seriously," says The Washington Post. And Hollywood isn't the only community that might be alarmed. Having conquered Tinsel Town, Levin is training his lenses eastwards. He now plans to target Washington.

"The guy who rules Hollywood"

Michael Jackson's untimely end was a defining moment for the digital age. Twitter reported over twice the normal "tweets per second" the moment the story broke; Google received so many "Michael Jackson" requests that its computers diagnosed an automated attack and temporarily shut down.

Indeed, TMZ's bulletin spread through the web so quickly that it created a surreal divide, says The New York Times. "On the internet Mr Jackson was dead, and on TV he was still alive" because traditional news outlets waited for the LA Times to confirm the news before they ran it.

The trouble is that TMZ.com's many exclusives range from dead-on, journalistically accurate accounts to eyebrow-raising but uncheckable sensation, and "it's often hard to tell which is which", says The Washington Post. The drama certainly puts TMZ in the spotlight at "a delicate time" in its evolution, agrees the LA Times.

It might have a monthly readership of 4.1 million (spiking much higher with big stories), but both the site and the TV show "have proven much better at generating controversy than cash" for Time Warner. Big advertisers remain wary of a format that takes such a breezy approach to celebrity ridicule.

Yet Levin has undoubtedly changed the rules of the game. "Publicists ran Hollywood before we came along," Levin told Television Week. But at a recent convention of powerful entertainment lawyers representing the likes of Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg Levin was introduced as "the guy who rules Hollywood".