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How TMZ Became Hollywood’s Grim Reaper

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: TMZ
November 16, 2023 at 10:31

After being tipped on Matthew Perry’s death, the site’s close ties to law enforcement and habit of paying sources gets new scrutiny.

On Oct. 28, TMZ was first to report Matthew Perry’s drowning death. The media outlet, which over the past two decades has become a byword for hard-edged celebrity coverage, cited law enforcement sources and ran a redacted audio clip it’d obtained of a dispatcher communicating with emergency personnel before running photos of the actor’s stricken parents arriving at his home.

The site has been renowned and reviled for such lightning scoops. Its casualties include Todd Fisher, who has uniquely experienced its force as a merciless reaper. TMZ broke the news of the death of his sister Carrie. Then, the next day, it was first to report that his mother, Debbie Reynolds, had been transported from his home, where she’d been discussing funeral plans for Carrie, to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center because of a possible stroke. (TMZ had audio of the dispatch call.) She soon died there. “They have relationships with people willing to be unethical,” Fisher says. “Within 10 minutes of me finding out [she’d died], it was already out.”

Since breaking Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, TMZ’s singular style of obituary reporting — which has relied on paid informants, known in the trade as “checkbook journalism,” a practice outside the ethical bounds of most mainstream media outlets — keeps the site relevant in the pop-culture conversation. According to those who’ve found themselves in the midst of its buzz saw, it functions as a malignant power that hurts people at their most vulnerable moments.

Two days after Perry’s death, Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, recalled his own TMZ experience on X, the social platform previously known as Twitter: “They paid off people in the hospital when my father passed. Couldn’t even fucking grieve for 20 minutes.” (The Nov. 12 episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver took aim at such situations by flashing a faux TMZ headline that read, “This Celebrity Died and Not Even Their Family Knows Yet.”)

Icon PR CEO Heather Besignano’s client roster has included Bob Saget, whose death was first reported by TMZ. She contends that the site’s approach — often abetted by civil servants passing along unauthorized information — can be “diabolical.” Besignano acknowledges that while TMZ may have its facts straight, she believes there’s “never a lot of care or kindness behind it.”

Some sources tip off TMZ — which the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Fox Entertainment purchased from the then-named WarnerMedia in 2021 in a deal valued at less than $50 million — because it’s a thrill, or they’re angry. Others want a payout, which can range from a few hundred dollars to far higher. A former TMZ staffer recalls that there’s no ceiling on payments. “They have an insane amount of capital to do this kind of thing,” the person says. (The New York Post, another outlet owned by Murdoch, reported that the hotel elevator footage of Solange attacking Jay-Z was purchased for $250,000.)

TMZ’s network of informants — waiters, clerks and valets, but also members of stars’ personal and professional circles — deeply penetrates the local “30-mile zone” that gives the outlet its name. The organization managed to be so cozy with the Los Angeles County Superior Court that the court’s chief spokesman was dismissed for supposedly providing confidential information to the site. (The court rep has denied this.) TMZ had so many moles at LAX that it helped give rise to top Hollywood security consultant Gavin de Becker’s private terminal there in 2019.

Yet much of the most consequential material arrives from local law enforcement officials, with whom TMZ cultivates close relationships. Harvey Levin, the hands-on founder who’s run the outlet nonstop since its launch in 2005, is known to be attuned to hiring staffers who may already possess intimate connections behind the blue line, according to newsroom veterans who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter. For example, the former head of TMZ’s news desk was the son of the assistant sheriff in Orange County. The former TMZ staffer says law enforcement is “extremely closely tied” to the site, which this person says receives most of its tips by way of a “handful” of unscrupulous officers who regularly call in. 

Its current director of investigations, Dennis Broad, who’s been with the outlet since its start, is the key liaison with the LAPD. The relationship is no secret. In 2019, the department posted pictures on an official social media account about his visit to its dispatch center, adding: “Thanks for the TMZ swag!”

A law enforcement officer tipped off TMZ to Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash before his wife, Vanessa, learned of it from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. She was “distraught and confused,” according to a lawsuit she filed against the county and some of its agencies for sharing graphic photos of human remains from the crash, which also killed their daughter Gianna and several others. As looky-loos rushed to the scene in the wake of TMZ’s reporting, hoping to catch a glimpse of the crash site, sheriff’s deputies snapped close-up photos of the victims’ remains in violation of department policy — and later circulated them among dozens of members of both the sheriff’s and fire departments, even though neither was involved in the investigation.

Vanessa Bryant’s suit alleged that “government employees abusing access to celebrity-related information has long been a problem in Los Angeles,” nodding to an LAPD officer sharing photos of Rihanna’s bruised face with TMZ following her assault by Chris Brown. Then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva admitted that the department’s policies were “deficient.” Fisher is unsparing about TMZ’s effect on loved ones — “They don’t think about collateral damage” — and also reconciled to its role in the modern-day informational landscape. “The public has a demand,” he says. “There’s a market. They’re filling it.” 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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