Keeping an Eye on Celebrities

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Long before Mel Gibson was pulled over by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies in Malibu for drunk driving, the entertainment news website — whose name is an acronym for the "thirty-mile zone" around Hollywood — had shown a knack for giving the world an unblinking, and often unflattering, view of celebrity shenanigans. "We report things as soon as we learn them and can confirm them," the website's general manager, Alan Citron, says. "I think that and the unvarnished nature of our coverage, which isn't the standard red-carpet grip-and-grin, has made us stand out in the crowd.

Since its launch eight months ago, the unique hybrid site that is part, part Entertainment Tonight and part Candid Camera, has trained its seemingly omnipresent microphones and lenses at the gated driveways of movie star residences and the velvet-roped entrances to Hollywood's hottest nightspots, while scouring public records and plumbing a deep well of sources to capture the boldface names in their habitat.

It was TMZ that first published the birth certificate of Suri Cruise, the still-unseen baby daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The website first reported the incendiary allegations lodged by Denise Richards against husband Charlie Sheen in divorce papers. It also captured, in sound and streaming video, disparaging comments about Lindsay Lohan by Brandon Davis, grandson of deceased billionaire Marvin Davis, as he walked down the street with a giggling Paris Hilton.

But with its well-sourced and carefully documented account of Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade and belligerent behavior during his DUI arrest on Pacific Coast Highway last week, upstart TMZ became legit. "It was definitely a watershed event," says Citron, a former Los Angeles Times entertainment industry reporter and editor who has also done stints as an executive with TicketmasterOnline, USA Network Interactive and Movielink. "That story gave us credibility because we were first and we were accurate. It introduced us, in a way that was positive, to people who hadn't heard of us." Even the publicists whose clients are targets of TMZ's unblinking glare agree. "Its presence can no longer be ignored," says Elliot Mintz, who represents Paris Hilton and Christie Brinkley.

TMZ is a joint venture of America Online and the Telepictures Productions division of Warner Bros. (both companies are divisions of Time Warner, also the parent of TIME). Despite those high-powered connections, the website operates out of a nondescript warehouse building in an industrial section of Glendale, Calif., several freeway exits away from the swanky Warner Bros lot. Still, it's a fitting setting for the gritty brand of journalism practiced by the site that bills itself as an on-demand entertainment news network. Its 25 staffers are led by managing editor Harvey Levin, an Emmy-award-winning former legal affairs and investigative reporter for the Los Angeles CBS and NBC affiliates and creator of the syndicated show Celebrity Justice.

TMZ first learned of the DUI arrest when one of Levin's sources phoned him on midday Friday. When he subsequently heard that the episode didn't occur without incident, as the Sheriff's office had asserted, Levin obtained from his sources accounts of Gibson's actions and comments, as well as the complete report the arresting officer, deputy James Mee, filed that quoted Gibson's statements about Jews. Thus, a scoop was born.

Stan Rosenfield, whose clients include George Clooney, says that from now on, "TMZ is going to be a major player. Harvey Levin and his staff are getting more stories than the others." Among the vast array of blogs and websites devoted to celebrity news, Rosenfield says TMZ is one that he and his colleagues will "have to learn to deal with like any other form of communication now." Mintz has noticed that the scope of TMZ's reach has jumped beyond the Internet. "I've seen video clips used on network affiliates and in the body of syndicated television entertainment programs with the TMZ logo," he says. "Obviously, TMZ has the ability to place video crews on the street at 1, 2 and 3 in the morning. A syndicated TV show or local affiliate doesn't have the resources to have somebody sit around for hours because something might happen."

Largely due to TMZ's virtual 24/7 presence, Mintz has admonished his clients to be careful about what they say and do in public. Hilton, in particular, is a favorite object of TMZ's attention, so much so that she recently granted Levin a rare interview in which she complained about the "hurtful" comments posted about her by readers on the TMZ website. Now, that's access, Hollywood.