For all the focus of the past few days on Bo, the most interesting thing about the Obamas' new pooch wasn't the dog himself, which we've known for quite some time was going to be a Portuguese water dog. It was the fact that the story was broken not by a usual Beltway chronicler like the Washington Post, CNN or Politico but rather by TMZ, the usually Hollywood-focused follower of celebrity gossip and scandal. Yes, that TMZ, the same blog and TV show that broke the photo of Rihanna's battered face, the police report of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant and any number of images of Paris Hilton in compromising situations.
TMZ has actually had a bureau in the nation's capital for about a year now, lured by the promise of Barack Obama and his band of A-listers such as Oprah, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. "Obama has re-energized D.C., made it sexier," Harvey Levin, TMZ's co-founder and executive producer, said in a telephone interview the second one, as Levin had to abruptly end the first call to deal with the news of Mel Gibson's wife filing for divorce. "We're [in Washington] to create personalities. Even though it's a lower level of covering politics, I think it'll bring people in that never had interest in politics before." (See pictures of Bo and other First Dogs.)
So far TMZ's stories have been lighthearted. Aside from Bo ("We were all over the dog," Levin said, laughing), it has done a story about Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina driving his convertible 1974 VW in a snowstorm and four reports on 27-year-old freshman Representative Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican who challenged the President to an abs contest (Obama didn't take up that particular offer). "We've been amazed at the positive feedback we've gotten back in Illinois, and Representative Schock will continue to utilize all available outlets to communicate with his constituents," said Dave Natonski, Schock's communications director. Indeed, the story landed Schock spots on the Today show and Good Morning America; CNN even asked the Representative to show his abs on air.
Burr's press secretary, David Ward, echoed that sentiment. "So much of what people see about Senator Burr is policy-related. People rarely see the personal side, and TMZ is doing a good job showing that in a fun way," Ward said, adding that the Senator's staff was surprised at the story's response, which included an avalanche of e-mails and calls that were a boon for the Republican, who is facing a tough re-election. "That let us know that more people watch TMZ in North Carolina than we thought, and it helps expose him to an audience of people who may not have seen him."
Levin is beefing up TMZ's presence in Washington, though he won't say how many people work for him. But he does make clear that TMZ (which is co-owned by Time Inc.'s sister company AOL) will not limit itself to Capitol Hill or the Administration. "If I got Ruth Bader Ginsburg doing aerobics, that would be interesting," he said. "I'm interested in the D.C. operators." TMZ will also cover Hollywood celebs coming through town, like Brad Pitt's recent visit to the Hill to lobby for money for New Orleans. And soon it may have a new crop of homegrown reality stars to keep track of: the CW will air a reality show this summer called Blonde Charity Mafia, which will follow three Georgetown junior socialites, and there are rumors of at least two other Washington-based reality shows in the works, including a season of MTV's The Real World. (Read about the Obamas and the paparazzi.)
Of course, Hollywood is hardly a stranger in D.C. In addition to shows like NBC's The West Wing and HBO's K Street, which were often filmed on location, the Sundance Channel spent two years following Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, and his staff for a show called The Hill. But it stayed away from the more sensational, gossipy aspects of Capitol Hill life, said Lale Mamaux, one of Wexler's staffers, who appeared on the show and now serves as Florida Representative Alcee Hastings' chief of staff. They "wanted to capture more document the work of Hill staffers and what we do every day," she said, while adding that she would probably not do a show like it again.
Many of TMZ's Hollywood stories come from staking out stars' homes and trendy bars and nightclubs. But Levin is mum about whether he will use the same tactics in D.C. "We're really not staking people out it's not like there's this grand plan," he said. But he noted, "The same thing was said about the scene when we started in Hollywood, that all you saw were only interviews, junkets and red carpets. It was very false. This is just going to be more real." And while Levin is enjoying the lighthearted stories for now, he's not ruling out tougher investigative pieces down the line. And since TMZ is not applying for press credentials, his crews won't be with the usual Washington press corps. Will they be hanging out at Hill haunts such as Tortilla Flats or Cap Lounge or the stately Off the Record bar across from the White House? In any event, politicians are on notice: TMZ is in town.