Politics & Government

TMZ finds fame in bringing celebrity foibles to the world

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and first lady Maria Shriver with Rita Moreno on Dec. 5, 2007. (Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and first lady Maria Shriver with Rita Moreno on Dec. 5, 2007. (Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT) MCT

People reading newspapers in Australia and England last week learned that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had troubles with the Internal Revenue Service.

In October, hundreds of millions of Chinese were regaled with tales of motor vehicle misconduct by the governor's wife, Maria Shriver.

And in Worthington, Minn., readers of the Daily Globe were cautioned not to drive like Shriver.

What they all shared was a common source for their news: A 4-year-old Web site with an obscure acronym for a name and a predilection for breaking stories that sting its subjects even as they tickle its viewers.

"TMZ has become a go-to source for celebrity news, certainly, and for sensational news," said Neil Henry, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "It's been proven over the past 18 months that TMZ is outstanding at producing news."

Much of the time – make that most of the time – the site's news production centers on short snippets of celebrity sass or the foibles and mishaps of personages major and minor:

• "Lamar & Khloe Officially Stuck With Each Other."

• "David Hasselhoff: 'I'm Healthy!' "

• "Ex-Miss Argentina Dies After Butt-Implant Surgery."

The site has led the world in reporting events connected to golfer Tiger Woods' driving mishaps and marital woes.

And as UC Berkeley's Henry and others point out, the site's reach has sometimes extended far beyond the audience of people who know who Lamar and Khloe are, or care about the cost of replacing the fire hydrant in front of Woods' mansion.

The day after Thanksgiving, for example, TMZ reported in a 150-word missive that "the United States government might have a bigger budget to work with – if one bodybuilding governor would pay the back taxes it appears he never got around to paying."

"According to documents filed in L.A. County Superior Court, Arnold Schwarzenegger owes the IRS $39,047 from 2004 and $40,016 from 2005."

The site also included a copy of an IRS lien against Schwarzenegger in May.

As it turned out, the issue concerned computer glitches and a postal problem. The governor's business manager eventually explained the tax agency hadn't noticed a different filing number on payroll forms for Schwarzenegger's household employees, and that notices about it were sent to his home address instead of his business address.

No matter. The original story was carried in newspapers, Web sites and television outlets from Sydney to Sacramento – and virtually all of the accounts included variations of the phrase "according to TMZ."

So, what's a TMZ, and why is it zeroing in on the governor of California and his wife?

TMZ – the acronym stands for "Thirty Mile Zone," a reference to the area surrounding a cluster of Los Angeles TV and movie studios – was born in November 2005.

An offspring of the Time Warner media conglomerate, TMZ is run by Harvey Levin, a 58-year-old lawyer who worked for a decade as a television reporter in Los Angeles.

The site, which Levin has likened to the Associated Press of the celebrity gossip world, provides a seemingly endless stream of often exclusive and as often embarrassing photos of luminaries from the worlds of show biz and sports.

In addition to the tax flap, TMZ has photographically nabbed Schwarzenegger and Shriver for parking in red zones and talking on cell phones while behind the wheel, respectively.

While the site doesn't ordinarily feature the parking peccadillos of politicians and their spouses, Schwarzenegger and Shriver transcend politics because of their celebrity as former movie star and former network news reporter/Kennedy clan member.

"The governor and Maria are bona fide celebrities," said Barbara O'Connor, who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento, "and anyone who lives by the celebrity sword is open to being stabbed by it."

Neither the Governor's Office nor the Web site seem eager to talk about whether the first couple are being stalked by the site. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment, as did TMZ.

In fact, TMZ officials declined to comment on anything, even after written questions were submitted by a Bee reporter.

But while TMZ has been harshly criticized for ambush-style reporting and rushing stories onto the Web without key elements or explanations, it also has been cited as an example of the new synergy that constitutes 21st century journalism.

"I think sites like TMZ 'key up' stories that are largely unvetted, and then the mainstream media will do the necessary vetting, and either report it or dispense with it," said O'Connor, "As mainstream media downsizes, having these sites as a source of tips is valuable."

O'Connor said she is troubled, however, that in the accelerating competition to report things first, the need to report things accurately sometimes suffers.

"The mainstream media often feels compelled to compete on sensationalistic breaking news," she said, "and sometimes relies on attributing things to reporting by celebrity Web sites or gossip papers, which are sometimes not very reliable."

And sometimes the "mainstream media" aren't needed at all.

For example, UC Berkeley's Henry points to TMZ's Northern Trust Bank exposé in February.

TMZ posted photos and videos of a lavish party the bank threw for hundreds of clients and employees as part of a professional golf tournament it was sponsoring in Los Angeles. The report prompted demands by members of Congress that the bank repay $1.6 billion in federal bailout funds, which it did.

"The work they did on Northern Trust was outstanding," Henry said. "As journalists we tend to hold journalism to a higher standard of coverage. But as newspapers and other news entities continue their shrinkage and diminishing content, sites like this are helping to fill the gaps."

Among them: improving the driving habits of certain governors and their spouses.

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