'New Yorker' Examines TMZ's Reporting Strategy
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One day in February 2012, after Whitney Houston was found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton, a man named Kevin Blatt checked into a room there. Blatt is a source for the celebrity news site TMZ. And at the Hilton, he forked out cash for photos of Houston's room service cart and of that bathtub. I got a whole pocket full of hundreds, he remembers. That's what makes the world go round - cash. That story is one of many unearthed by Nicholas Schmidle in his year-long investigation of TMZ. Schmidle writes about it in this week's New Yorker, and he joins us now. Good morning.
NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Good morning.
KELLY: What first got you started sniffing around on TMZ?
SCHMIDLE: Well, I had been finishing up another piece and was looking for the next project. And it offered an interesting challenge - how to get sourced up and to be able to figure out how TMZ did what they did. I mean, I came into the story with zero knowledge of TMZ, zero knowledge of celebrity news. But the idea was to try and kind of separate some of the myth from the reality and just to kind of try and figure out how the operation works.
KELLY: I was fascinated, as a reporter, by your account of how TMZ works its sources. I mean, they are wired. You write that they've got a source at Delta who's calling the tip line to tell them who's flying when and where.
SCHMIDLE: That, I think, was potentially the biggest take-away for me, is the extent to which they have Los Angeles wired. People at Hudson News, people at this coffee shop, that coffee shop, this checking counter - it's pretty impressive.
KELLY: Now, one interesting thing is that TMZ is upfront and shameless about the fact that they pay those sources, which is a bright line that a traditional news organization will not cross. How does TMZ justify the practice?
SCHMIDLE: You know, what Harvey Levin has said when asked about this...
KELLY: This is Harvey Levin, the founder of TMZ.
SCHMIDLE: Correct. He says, the video is the video; who cares if you pay for it? The process of obtaining those videos is one thing. The release of those videos, though, what it does is that it has really kind of single-handedly changed the way that celebrity news is covered. Now it's not so easy for a celebrity to say no, no, no, dismiss the story and sort of lawyer up and move on. Now TMZ can hold people accountable. If you look at the Ray Rice videos - the Baltimore Ravens running back who punched his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City in 2014 - the first video comes out and it shows Ray Rice merely dragging his fiancee out of the elevator. Nothing happens. Ray Rice, you know, he's hit with a light suspension, but he's planning to return to football. The second video comes out and it shows the quote, unquote, "knock-out punch," and since then, Ray Rice's career is over.
KELLY: The point you're making here is it was TMZ that, through its sources, got the second video in which you actually see the punch and which caused a huge crisis for the NFL.
SCHMIDLE: Totally, totally, totally.
KELLY: Did you find an answer to this question - is what TMZ does journalism?
SCHMIDLE: Is what TMZ does journalism? It's a great question. I mean, I think that they're - I don't - most of the big scoops they get are tips. There's not a lot of them identifying a story they want to go after and then chasing it for sort of weeks on end. What there is, however, are full-time employees who sit at the courthouse all day long looking for new court filings involving celebrities.
KELLY: You write that TMZ has three reporters at the LA County Courthouse. The Los Angeles Times, the paper of record there, has one.
SCHMIDLE: Right. I think that does show their dedication to the sort of fare they want to traffic in, which is hard-evidenced reporting - showing that this is the court case, this is the lawsuit that's been filed.
KELLY: All right, Nicholas Schmidle, thank you.
SCHMIDLE: And many thanks for having me on.
KELLY: That's Nicholas Schmidle. "The Digital Dirt," his investigation into TMZ's reporting tactics, is in this week's New Yorker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.