In January, 2011, an anonymous tipster, using a voice modulator to disguise her identity, called TMZ, offering to sell a compromising video of Justin Bieber. At the time, Bieber was sixteen years old and about to star in a bio-pic, “Never Say Never.”
The caller e-mailed a teaser from the video that reached Diana Dasrath, who until recently was TMZ’s “clips-clearance manager.” The teaser showed Bieber, sitting alone in a room, singing his hit “One Less Lonely Girl” a cappella. In place of the usual lyrics, Bieber had substituted “nigger” for “girl.” He giggled as he sang, “There’ll be one less lonely nigger” and “If I kill you, I’ll be part of the K.K.K.”
Levin faced a tough decision. “You have no idea how many stories cross our desks that we don’t do,” he said in 2013. He has pointed out that he frequently passes up “the juiciest stuff.” In 2008, he received photographs of Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, smoking a bong, but elected not to publish them. “It felt like he was set up,” he told an audience at the National Press Club. (The News of the World published the photos.) Two years later, Levin declined to post voice mails and lewd text messages that purportedly had been sent by the quarterback Brett Favre to a New York Jets gameday host. “It felt like bedroom police to me,” he said at the time. (Deadspin published the messages.) In November, 2014, according to a leaked e-mail, Jonathan Stinson, a publicist from Relevant Relations PR, submitted gossip about a former child star, backed up with “legal/hospital documents left in a backpack of her former roommate.” Mike Walters, TMZ’s news director, told his colleagues, “We don’t want to be involved with hospital records.” (When reached by phone, Stinson claimed that he had been trying to sell the records on behalf of an acquaintance.)
Levin claims to live by a code that precludes him from crossing certain lines, such as targeting minors or policing bedroom affairs. (Dr. Phil, on a 2014 episode of his program, said, “I know Harvey Levin . . . and I know him to be someone that values children and family relationships.”) Levin is sensitive to any insinuation otherwise. In 2012, Ellen DeGeneres, whose show is produced by Telepictures, implied on the air that TMZ outed gay people. Levin called a Telepictures executive and said, of DeGeneres, “She’s ruining the brand!” DeGeneres phoned Levin to apologize, according to three former TMZ employees, but he refused to take her call. When she sent him a gift basket, Levin refused that, too.
Despite Bieber’s age, the clip was too compelling for TMZ to pass up, and Dasrath was involved in efforts to procure it. (She declined repeated requests for comment.) Dasrath managed several of TMZ’s critical sources, including those inside Delta and the limo company. She also fostered relationships with hackers. In 2013, TMZ broke a series of stories about hackers “swatting” celebrities: calling 911, falsely claiming to be the celebrity victim of a home invasion, and then watching as a swat team descended on the celebrity’s house. During this period, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Selena Gomez were all victims of “swatting.” While the L.A.P.D. searched for the culprits, TMZ continued publishing scoops about the incidents.
After a deal was made for the Bieber clip, Justin Kaplan—the former production associate who had received the limo lists at the gas station—was sent to Levin’s house.
“They liked the way I handled things, and they used to pick me to go on these cool trips,” Kaplan told me. At the house, Andy Mauer gave Kaplan an envelope containing a check for about eighty thousand dollars. Kaplan drove to the Burbank airport and caught the next flight to Las Vegas. He rented a car and headed to an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. On the second floor, a middle-aged African-American woman in an oversized T-shirt answered the door. Kaplan tried to ascertain the woman’s identity: did she have a son who was friends with Bieber? But she didn’t want to chat. “She handed me a laptop, and a disk, and I gave her the check. I got on the next flight back to Burbank.”
In the newsroom, staffers made preparations to publish. “It’s part of the machine—you own every angle related to the original story,” another former production assistant told me. “You find family. You find neighbors. You find associates and friends. You find affected groups. You call the record label, you call the N.A.A.C.P.—what do they have to say about it?” Such posts draw more readers to the original story, helping it to go viral. “That’s the way Harvey controls the game.”
That afternoon, TMZ contacted Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, for comment. A source close to the situation told me that when Bieber was informed of the leak he broke down, confessing that he had made the video a while back, as a joke, and that he thought he had deleted it from his laptop, which was later stolen.
In a phone conversation, Braun pleaded with Levin not to post the video, saying, “You’re going to ruin this kid’s life.” Levin hesitated for four seconds, then said that he was moving ahead, and that he would need a statement from Braun by the morning. “Harvey, whatever those four seconds were—whatever that place is—that’s the place that I want you to go back to,” Braun said. He and other members of Bieber’s team stayed up all night crafting a statement. In the morning, Braun and Levin spoke again. Levin confided that he’d been unable to sleep. “A lot of people call me and tell me I’m an asshole—they say, ‘Fuck you,’ ” Levin said. “You didn’t. I’m not putting the video up.” Braun broke down in tears. Bieber later called Levin and thanked him.
In the 2010 lecture at the University of Chicago Law School, Levin hinted at his calculations in such moments. “I don’t live by hard-and-fast rules in this job,” he said. “I can’t give you a rigid principle on where the line of privacy is.” He claimed that he struggled with this dilemma “all the time.”
Twenty-four hours after the Bieber video came in, the newsroom learned that Levin had decided not to run the story. He did not destroy his copy of the video, however, and Bieber’s camp was aware that Levin could reverse his position and post it. Celebrity secrets are treated like commodities at TMZ, not unlike the way they were treated by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. “The power of secret information was a gun that Hoover always kept loaded,” Tim Weiner writes, in “Enemies,” a 2012 book about the bureau. A former writer for TMZ told me that, for Levin, there was more to gain by sitting on the clip, and earning Bieber’s good will, than by running it and ruining his career. (Older gossip publications followed this strategy as well. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the “dark genius” of William d’Alton Mann, the publisher of Town Topics, was his realization that “stories that came into his possession were perhaps worth more untold than told.” In the nineteen-fifties, Confidential gained access to the head of Columbia Studios by leveraging tapes of Rock Hudson that referred to his homosexuality.)
In the months before TMZ obtained the video, its coverage of Bieber had often been antagonistic; it ran a post suggesting that he had hit a twelve-year-old boy during a game of laser tag. After Braun and Levin had their phone conversation, numerous flattering Bieber-related exclusives appeared on the site: a photograph of Bieber backstage during a commercial shoot; pictures of him getting a haircut; a video of him and his girlfriend Selena Gomez performing karaoke; a story about how he bought “every single flower” at a florist’s and sent the flowers to Gomez’s house; video from a trip that Bieber took to Liverpool; and others, including a report of him watching “Titanic” one night, with Gomez, inside an otherwise vacant Staples Center. (“Sources connected to the Biebs tell us . . . Justin hatched the idea after seeing the movie ‘Mr. Deeds’—where Adam Sandler surprises Winona Ryder with a date at Madison Square Garden.”) Bieber also made some appearances on “TMZ Live.”
In June, 2014, the Sun published a copy of the scandalous “One Less Lonely” video. (Unbeknownst to Levin, the seller had continued to shop around copies of the footage. Radar Online also owned a copy of the footage.)
Levin dedicated a segment to the clip on “TMZ on TV.” Mike Walters, the head of the news desk, said, “So there’s a video of Justin Bieber, when he was fourteen, singing a parody of his own song, ‘One Less Lonely Girl,’ where the ‘girl’ is replaced by the n-word.” Levin feigned shock.
Source : http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/22/inside-harvey-levins-tmz