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Gibson Scoop a Big Hit for Site

August 01, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

Regular visitors to the entertainment news website TMZ.com are usually greeted with celebrity reportage of the lighter sort -- photos of Cameron Diaz frolicking with boyfriend Justin Timberlake in the Hawaiian surf or Matthew McConaughey dancing and drinking at a Costa Rican club.

But at 9:15 p.m. Friday, visitors to the site were hit with this headline: "Gibson's Anti-Semitic Tirade -- Alleged Cover Up."

Since then, the story has become the talk of Hollywood and developed into one of the year's most sensational sagas: a mash-up of celebrity recklessness and racism with the potential to expose police malfeasance. But to hear it from TMZ's managing editor, Harvey Levin, he nearly missed the call that would make headlines around the world.

"It started with a phone call to me," he said. "But I was so busy at the time, I almost had someone take a message."

'TMZ' stands for "Thirty Mile Zone," a film-industry reference to the area around Hollywood. So far, the 8-month-old Glendale-based entertainment news website has scooped all competition. It was the first to report that Gibson had been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, the first media outlet to report his alleged anti-Semitic outbursts and the first to report allegations that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had tried to cover up details of behavior that the Academy Award winner himself later called "despicable."

"The story caused a significant spike in the site's traffic, probably our biggest day ever," said TMZ supervising producer Gillian Sheldon. TMZ followed up with a report that Gibson had appeared in a 2002 public service announcement for a Sheriff's Department charity. By Sunday afternoon, the site posted the clip of Gibson dressed in a sheriff's uniform and pulling over actor Scott Baio for speeding.

"Every new website needs a providential break to emerge into the public consciousness, and this is going to put TMZ on the map," said Kevin Roderick, editor of the media blog L.A. Observed. "For the Drudge Report, it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal."

For Levin, 55, a former lawyer who first came to national prominence as the post-trial interviewer on "The People's Court," the story is an opportunity to introduce the site to a larger audience. "This was a hard story and a high-stakes story," he said. "You gotta be right -- and mighty careful."

Levin declined to identify the tipster, but said the person who provided him with crucial information was not connected to the police. Another source passed him the original narrative of sheriff's Deputy James Mee, the arresting officer. That source alleged that Mee had been ordered to reword the report to leave out mention of Gibson's incendiary behavior and comments.

"The police are on a witch hunt to find out how I got this," Levin said. "But I'm not going to burn anyone."

When he called the Lost Hills Station and quoted from the report, Levin said, he was brushed off. "The watch commander I was talking to said, 'I never heard anything about that,' " he said. "She had that nervous laughter, and I thought, 'This is not right.' "

Before the Gibson exclusive, TMZ's biggest "get" was a clip of Brandon Davis, ex-boyfriend of "The O.C.'s" Mischa Barton, disparaging Lindsay Lohan outside a Hollywood nightclub.

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