Harvey Levin, the man behind the TMZ celebrity news empire in Los Angeles, is profiled by Nicholas Schmidle in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Now look: I loathe the wasteland of celebrity culture, at least as it exists today—a non-stop production plant of social media image-making masquerading as a news cycle (and we, the affable proletariat). And yet, like the effect of the rags so many of us pick up at airports, I couldn’t put the article about Levin—a “Jew nerd from Reseda, California” who owns those means of production—down.
Here are some highlights:
— Alex Baldwin, whose aggressive voicemail to his daughter was made public in 2007, hates Levin. Said Baldwin: “He is a festering boil on the anus of American media.”
— Warner Bros. apparently owns the TMZ’s website. Yep.
— Levin, as we know, has lorded over and dropped some important news, including audio of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend she shouldn’t socialize with black people (like Magic Johnson), and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic ramblings (“Fucking Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”). He’s also tamped news, such as a video of a 15-year-old Justin Bieber saying a racial epithet repeatedly on video (it was eventually released by a non-TMZ source anyway).
— TMZ more or less operates a web of snitches. I’ve been fighting over whether or not this is the correct wording for it, but that’s what I’m settling on. The New Yorker details Levin’s orderly and expansive operation—as well as Levin’s roots as a journalist and lawyer himself—but this is not a journalistic operation. TMZ pays its sources, typically with envelopes of cash, and that information is front and center. And it’s scary (at least I would be scared, as a celebrity) to learn about who these “moles” work for: Delta Airlines, limousine services, the the L.A. assistant chief coroner, officers of the LAPD, randoms who simply call in with tips. It’s scary what people will do for a buck, and Levin knows this.
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.