In his new article for New Yorker magazine, writer Nicholas Schmidle explains how TMZ founder Harvey Levin single handedly re-invented the celebrity news business with TMZ.
According to the article, the key to Levin’s success is a Stasi-like network of informants spread out across L.A.—allegedly ranging from limo dispatchers and dry cleaners to people inside the LAPD—and a fantastically dedicated staff, which he rules with an iron fist. (Apparently public dressing downs are common in the TMZ offices. A former cameraman says “Harvey Levin would have been a great dictator: He is charming enough so that you want to follow him, but terrifying enough so that you don’t want to fail.”)
The article also goes into the Levin origin story, which details how a former law professor and gun control advocate became the king of celebrity dirt. Apparently at least part of it comes from Levin’s frustration with the fact that there is one set of laws for the rich and famous and another set of laws for the rest of us. As the article puts it,
Levin had witnessed this double standard himself. His father had run a liquor store in Reseda, and in Harvey’s youth it was subjected repeatedly to sting operations by police officers who suspected that minors were being allowed to buy alcohol. At the same time, celebrity-friendly clubs in Hollywood touted their lenient policies with respect to minors. “Harvey thought it was so unfair that these clubs would get away with it, just because they were selling to celebrities,” Gillian Sheldon, the former TMZ publicist, told me.
He was also frustrated by the way publicists controlled access to their clients, and the lack of investigative ethos in celeb reporting
That’s made somewhat ironic at the conclusion of the article, when Schmidle meets Levin after the TMZer addresses a University of California, Santa Barbara journalism class. Levin expresses displeasure at Schmidle having talked to current and former employees, then refers him to a publicist.
Harvey Levin is apparently better at dishing it out than he is at taking it.