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In 2007, though, TMZ did indeed look like the future. It’s altered the way that news about celebrity is treated, spread, and consumed — and earned its place in a lineage, spanning from Confidential magazine to the National Enquirer, that turns “celebrity gossip” into serious investigative journalism impossible to ignore.And even if that status is less certain today, TMZ has been the most influential and important media organization of the last decade. But TMZ’s remarkable success and reputation have come at a price, as the demand to acquire and “own” scoops while simultaneously catering to a demographic of untraditional (read: straight male) gossip consumers has transformed a rag-tag group of reporters invested in illuminating Hollywood hypocrisy into a cabal of ruthless, click-hungry, and aggressive TMZers with little journalistic training and a tolerance of misogyny, both within the workplace and on the site and television show.Because as anyone affiliated with the site will tell you, the story of TMZ is really the story of Harvey Levin. from University of Chicago, passing the California bar in 1975. He was but one player in the larger industry that popped up around the trial and its aftermath, but he was skilled enough — and natural enough on camera — to win the role of host of the revival of The People’s Court.Harvey Levin grew up, in the words of one former associate, as a “Jew nerd from Reseda, Calif.” — in proximity to the glamour of Hollywood, but definitively excluded from it. Levin taught law and briefly practiced it, but starting in 1982 began focusing on his media career: He had a legal radio talk show, a column in the Los Angeles Times, and law-related reporting gigs at KNBC and later KCBS, which is where he was working when the biggest celebrity scandal of the ‘90s broke: the O. In 2002, he became the executive producer of Celebrity Justice, but the show only aired for three years.After Celebrity Justice was canceled, he began making regular appearances on CNN’s Showbiz Tonight, but, according to a confidant, he wanted something of his own — which is why he said yes when Jim Paratore, head of Time Warner-owned production company Telepictures, approached him with an offer.Paratore had headed up Telepictures since 1992, putting in place a blockbuster slate of daytime syndicated programming (The Tyra Banks Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Ellen De Generes Show) along with primetime mainstay The Bachelor.The vault isn’t a secret at TMZ — even the lowest on the staff ladder have heard whispers of its existence.
The TMZ tour gives the same experience of a generic Manhattan tour — the story of Times Square, which, in the guide’s words, "isn’t just home to 1,000 illegal immigrants working as Disney characters"; a quick turn through the Meatpacking District; a view of Central Park — only punctuated with landmarks of celebrity significance, introduced with TMZ’s trademark leering tone.As one source explained, “There’s no doubt: [Harvey] Levin absolutely changed the way celebrities function today.”TMZ has been responsible for breaking the biggest celebrity scandals of the last 10 years: effectively ending a 30-year career (Mel Gibson), tarnishing golf’s most sacred idol (Tiger Woods), and puncturing the pristine image of celebrity royalty (Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z).But it’s not just celebs: In 2009, it caught a bank spending millions of taxpayer bailout funds on a lavish party (Northern Trust), and, via spin-off TMZSports, instigated the billion sale of an NBA team by applying the same surveillance to a racist owner (Donald Sterling) once reserved for the Hollywood stars and socialites.” While passing ABC studios: “Here’s the set of Good Morning America, where Chris Brown is known for his hits!”Halfway through the three-hour tour, the bus stops in So Ho: To the left, there’s DASH, the Kardashian-branded store; to the right, you can backtrack to the loft where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a heroin overdose.He was short, smart, and savvy, and spent his childhood observing his father, who owned a liquor store, attempting to avoid selling booze to kids with fake IDs, while the cops indiscriminately chose when to prosecute and when to look the other way. In these pre-TMZ years of Levin’s life, the building blocks of the TMZ empire are all visible: the obsession with hypocrisy, the keen understanding of the law, the application to celebrity, the tireless ambition.According to this confidant, this experience would motivate and structure Levin’s career, as he worked to expose the hypocrisy of those in power, whether they be the police, celebrities, or the various apparatuses that supported and sheltered them. Levin was intelligent, but more importantly, he was telegenic, with the smooth talk of the most practiced lawyer and the charisma of a television star.TMZ’s real engine — what defines its mission, what legitimizes it and sets it apart — is a unique and controversial mix of scandal mongering and investigative journalism.But it’s also that mode that some have claimed is responsible for acquiring a video of Justin Bieber telling a racist joke and, over the course of four years, not publishing it.But its quest to become the “future of entertainment news" seems to have leveled out a bit.According to Quantcast, unique traffic has increased just 11% over a two-year period (24.48 million to 27.23 million; compare to usmagazine.com, whose unique traffic has increased 156%, from 12.8 million to 32.8 million) and Famous in 12, a TMZ-branded CW series, was canceled after five episodes this summer.