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TMZ gossip hounds want the D.C. dish

But will the Hollywood-obsessed website have enough to feed readers?

March 15, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In Hollywood, the website TMZ.com has already transformed celebrity culture, putting stars on notice that cellphone-toting tattlers and aggressive paparazzi are ready to splash their indiscretions all over cyberspace.

Now, the site that first disclosed Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant and the medications stored in Anna Nicole Smith's refrigerator is coming to the nation's capital. And local denizens are wondering why.

Sometimes called "Hollywood for ugly people," Washington usually rewards policy wonks. Think earmarks, fine print, protocols.

"Washington is where the term 'celebrity' includes former surgeons general, defense lawyers and Pat Buchanan," said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), whose status as a prominent bachelorette and stand-up comedian might make her a target for TMZ's gossip hounds. "TMZ is going to be bored out of its mind. The only thing keeping TMZ in D.C. for more than a week would be its lease."

Arianna Huffington, who hosted A-list parties in Washington as the wife of a prominent congressman, disagrees with inferences that D.C. will bore the gossip-hungry public. "Let's see, Mark Foley, 'Duke' Cunningham, Ted Haggard, Claude Allen at Target, William Jefferson's frozen 90 Gs, the Bush twins, 'Scooter' Libby, Ann Coulter, Deborah Jeane Palfrey and her 10,000-name trick book. Too boring? I don't think so," she said.

Asked if she thought TMZ would trivialize electoral politics, Huffington demurred. "Give the public some credit. It can tell the difference between the main course and dessert."

Still, founders of TMZ, named for the "thirty-mile zone" around Los Angeles that includes much of Hollywood's glitterati, are betting there is enough celebrity juice in Washington to warrant a new outlet in D.C. Within a month, an advance party is expected to land along the shores of the Potomac River.

"Celebrities aren't just in Hollywood," supervising producer Gillian S. Sheldon said.

Some think the market for gossip in Washington is already saturated, with the Politico, Wonkette and Smoking Gun websites already scouring the city, and a corps of card-carrying gossip writers working for magazines and newspapers.

"It's like a toy store the day after Christmas -- the good stuff is already picked over," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

TMZ has proved itself skilled in catching its targets at their most unflattering moments. In addition to obsessive coverage of Paris Hilton and the aftermath of Smith's death, the site is known for posting footage of "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards' racial rant, which an audience member captured on a cellphone video camera at an L.A. comedy club. The site has a staff of 25 and, unlike traditional news outlets, has been known to pay for news and photo scoops.

Its reward: 8.4 million visitors last month, beating such sites as People.com, according to comScore Media Metrix, an audience measurement firm.

Washington does serve up steamy stories, though nothing in recent years as explosive as the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. This month, much of the city gossip is focused on the tale of Palfrey, who pleaded not guilty to charges of running a prostitution ring and has threatened to sell her client list to pay for her legal defense. She contends her D.C. escort firm operated legally as a "fantasy service."

"The chances of them having the Beltway Madam's client book would be pretty high," said media consultant Bill Carrick, referring to TMZ.

In the future, D.C. scandals could be reported more aggressively. If Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) were to crash his car into a Capitol barricade at 3 a.m., as he did in May, would photos become public? If presidential campaign sensation Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) fell off the wagon and sneaked a puff on a cigarette, would the paparazzi pounce?

"Sharks always circle in the water when they smell blood," said GOP political consultant Christopher Barron. "TMZ's arrival in Washington signals that this will be one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in American history."

TMZ's founders, who include managing editor Harvey Levin, a onetime crime reporter and producer of TV's "Celebrity Justice," are not talking about their plans for D.C. But clearly the site's backers have a history of dredging the low end of the human gene pool, setting off what some call a celebrity video arms race.

"Britney is gold. She is crack to our readers," Levin once said of pop icon Britney Spears. "Her life is a complete train wreck, and I thank God for her every day."

Some predict that TMZ, a joint venture between AOL and Warner Bros.' Telepictures Productions, will further erode the line between news and gossip.

Political scientist John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University worries that "if a politician's private life is further curtailed," only colorless people will run for office.

But who knows, Geer said, "it might even become a sign of power and influence if you are important enough to be gossiped about."

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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