Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: It’s Oscar time in LA, which translates into hell week for publicists but a moment of delicious opportunity for bartenders, hospital orderlies, hotel maids and all the other so-called “sources” who sell scandalous news items to the ubiquitous TMZ. The stars will be drinking and partying this week, and Harvey Levin, who presides over the gossip mayhem, will decide which scoops to air and how much to pay. Levin’s empire daily reminds celebrities, and the rest of us, how appallingly our privacy has been invaded. The battle over Apple’s privacy rules has exponentially expanded this debate to another level. But I also thank The New Yorker this week for reminding us how important, and intimidating, Levin’s empire has become. The major media outlets publicly condemn Levin’s practice of paying as much as six figures to his sleazy sources, but, as the magazine points out, he’s landed stories like Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants, Ray Rice’s elevator athletics, Donald Sterling’s negotiations with girlfriends and other cultural milestones. And the sources have been amply rewarded. Is all this disgusting? Yes, but, as Levin proclaims, “most journalism about stars is built on a lie.” And he’s right. And Levin should be applauded for breaking through the walls that publicists have built around their celebrity clients.
FLEMING: I have grudging admiration for Levin, who has melded dogged journalism with under the table payments and turned it into a very profitable business model. Peter, we first met over the phone when you were a producer and I worked on a gossip column for New York Newsday and I believe my greatest contribution came when a friend told me that John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal were either shopping for an engagement ring or getting a marriage license, I forget which. You’ve got to be a certain type of person to make a living at the expense of others. I didn’t have that hardness in me, even then, and was never comfortable with it. But if you’re going to do that for a living, you might as well be all in. The unapologetic Levin is certainly that. Along the way, his TMZ has exposed: the appalling racist rant of Donald Sterling that forced him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because his mostly black players wouldn’t play for him; that singer Chris Brown and football star Ray Rice used women as punching bags; that Mel Gibson’s first instinct after being pulled over for drunk driving was to launch a verbal tirade against Jews. Out of the tabloids also came the revelation that married QB Brett Favre didn’t live up to his carefully cultivated Norman Rockwell image by texting pictures of his naughty bit to a woman he fancied, and Bill Cosby’s long string of accusations that he drugged and then had his way with dozens of women. None of this will ever be confused with the work that brought the Boston Globe reporting team a Pulitzer and led to the Best Picture candidate Spotlight, but there is a parallel here about exposing hard truths and pulling back the curtain on the worst behavior of people in prominence.
BART: But it’s a disgusting process, isn’t it? And who benefits and who loses? Was it really worth $250,000 to buy surveillance footage of Beyonce’s sister, Solange, attacking Jay Z in a New York hotel elevator? That’s what Page Six claims, anyway, and Levin never confirms or denies. He just enjoys — and plays God during the process. Levin decides which stars to exploit and which to protect. Some of the vids on Justin Bieber have never been aired. Like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover of old, Levin believes his store house of undisclosed material provides great negotiating power for future stories.
FLEMING: Nicholas Schmidle’s well researched New Yorker article Digital Dirt reported that Levin gave Bieber a pass for using the “N” word in a parody of a song because the kid was 16, and Levin gave him a break and didn’t destroy his career for doing something stupid at that prime age of stupidity. Every journalist and publication makes judgment calls about which fights to pick, and any journalist who says they haven’t benefited some way by pulling a punch isn’t being honest. Horse trading is part of the game. As for Solange walloping her brother-in-law Jay Z, it got picked up, second hand, by every “legitimate” media outlet in the world, as has the battered face of Rihanna at the hands of Chris Brown, and the Ray Rice video, and any number of videos and audiotapes that somehow fell into the hands of TMZ, which has been such a conduit for scandalous stuff. I’ve been kind of riveted to the FX series The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story; it’s remarkable how often the Kardashian children have shown up in the first few episodes. O.J. pal Robert Kardashian is the excuse, but I think the message is that the Simpson trial underscored the public’s insatiable desire for celebrity scandal, and led directly to the rise of reality series, TMZ and the Kardashians.
BART: If Harvey Levin can pull back the layers of secrecy surrounding film and music celebrities, could he do the same for politicians? This may seem like a squalid question, but how much do we really know, for example, about Donald Trump? And could Harvey Levin help? TMZ tried to open a Washington outlet but then changed its mind. My question about Trump may seem frivolous, but consider the Trump empire: Forbes says he’s worth $4.3 billion but, as The Economist points out, Trump doesn’t run a publicly listed company or even a holding company grouping his assets, so little hard data is available. His core of executives consists of family members. He has not made his taxes public. While he likes to boast about his great career in the gaming industry, his holdings were dwarfed by Sheldon Adelson’s (who’s worth $26 billion) and Trump had to dump his Atlantic City losers. Trump is known for yelling and screaming at executives and rivals but no one seems willing to talk. Where is Harvey Levin and his army of “paid” sources? What could they tell us about the inner workings of the Trump empire?
FLEMING: Two grafs ago, you seemed to be looking down your nose on Levin, and now you want to turn him loose in D.C. like some truth crusader? I’m not sure pols have the currency to make such exposure financially worthwhile. The exception is if you’ve got a sex scandal on the order of Monica Lewinsky. Drudge Report is now a conservative aggregation empire, but don’t forget Matt Drudge’s site came to prominence with revelations about Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress. It seemed tawdry, but it factored into impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton after he initially lied about the encounter.
BART: On another level, the mandate for secrecy in Washington was pointed up last week by the death of Antonin Scalia, whose history of bad health had been completely covered up for years. Even reports of Justice Scalia’s death were so muddy that The New York Times sat on it for almost an hour after it was posted by other media. Had TMZ penetrated Washington, Justice Scalia’s myriad secret trips to the hospital would have been disclosed by a receptionist or ambulance driver. OK, I’m not completely serious here, but it seems to me that Washington and Hollywood remain two totally contrasting worlds. We know more than we should about Hollywood, not enough about Washington.
FLEMING: I’ve got nothing for you on that last point. I did find it remarkable how Levin is minting money tapping the ferocious appetite for unvarnished celebrity revelations not only with a successful website and daily syndicated TV show (which I find un-watchable as kids stalk celebrities for airport sound bites) and a bus tour for tourists run by his partner, which actually gets celebrities to play ball and be viewed by gawking fans like zoo animals on a theme park safari tour. That is a better version of those maps to the star homes that have always been sold to tourists, and TMZ is a digital version of the old National Enquirer, with its shocking covers like the hospital shot of a near death Steve McQueen. You know how it’s said that every great fortune probably began with a great crime? Well, it seems these days like tomorrow’s general media celebrity tale began with yesterday’s salacious gossip item on TMZ or one of these other sites. If so-called legitimate news media were really that horrified by what TMZ was doing, it ought not to pick up second hand all the scoops being generated. Frowning on Levin while taking the safe route by recycling footage attributed to TMZ so you don’t have to pay to get the information or face the wrath of celebrity lawyers, well, that is hypocritical. And when they break a story about the tragic deaths of Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston, it’s ghoulish, but every publication follows their lead. What does it say when a prestige magazine like The New Yorker devotes page after page to Levin’s empire?
Peter, we just watched Deadpool break every superhero movie rule and gross half a billion dollars in two weeks. The public craves disruption. I’m not going to sit here and judge Levin and his TMZ army or any muckraker. One of my favorite magazines ever was the old Spy, which cleverly punctured the balloon of entitlement, and I laughed hard when the New York Post covered disgraced Subway pitchman Jared Fogle’s prison sentence on child pornography with a front cover that suggested he “Enjoy a Foot Long In Jail.” Many who get thumped deserve it, and the only problem I have is when paparazzi hound the children of stars. I recall an actor with kids once describing his daily reality of walking his kids into their school. Hulking, intimidating thugs with cameras, yelling at children in hopes they will look up and make a more salable picture subject. Those paparazzi, the actor said, form a semi-circle around their subjects so the backdrop behind the kids is clear. If they were photographing other hulking paparazzi screaming at children, they’d never be able to sell the pictures–even people who want prying photos might be appalled to see grown men screaming awful things at little kids who happen to be the progeny of movie stars. The rest of it? It’s Chinatown, Jake, and celebrities do have the option of not misbehaving or photographing intimate moments and leaving them around the house. I won’t judge Levin, but I don’t have it in me to make a living at the expense of others. Deadline’s policy is that if it relates to business, it’s fair game. Staying out of personal lives makes it easier to sleep better at night.
BART: Another example of “knowing too much” relates to the Hollywood Reporter’s exposure last week of David Milch’s personal demons. Milch is a four time Emmy winner (NYPD Blue and Deadwood among others) who has managed to blow $100 million on his gambling habit and owes the IRS $17 million. The THR story is well-written and well-reported, but do readers really need to know the details of the poor writer’s drug problems and financial misdeeds? He’s a writer and writers are supposed to be crazy. At what point does an artist deserve privacy? TMZ might have given the story thirty seconds and moved on. THR’s detailed analysis seemed at once good journalism – but a violation of privacy.
FLEMING: I would not have been proud to have my byline on that story. In my last days before ending a 20-year run at Variety, I was so conflicted with making the decision to join Deadline that my back went out. Bam. I hit the floor and could not get up. I was speaking with Milch and Michael Mann about the race horse drama Lucky that they’d just set at HBO. Milch was sympathetic to my sudden back flare-up; he suffered from back problems his whole life. I wrote the story, moved on, and two days later, Milch delivered to my house a back pillow, which really helped. This was the first time I’d spoken with Milch and I don’t think we’ve spoken since and since I don’t cover TV often, he gained nothing by doing this; he was being kind. Now, I recognize the guts it took to dig up and expose the famous writer’s personal spiral, and it is certainly startling he lost that much money. I just didn’t see it doing much for the greater good, though; no crime was exposed. THR profited at the expense of a fundamentally decent, flawed man. From those hacked Sony email documents on down, every journalist has to draw lines of decency in the sand in the digital age, only to cross them out and make new ones in order to stay competitive. It is impossible to imagine you will always feel good about every decision made under those conditions, when you look back.