Michael Jackson's Death Puts Us Weekly and TMZ at the Head of the Pack

"Nightline" goes inside the "viciously competitive" tabloid war over Jackson.

June 30, 2009, 6:10 PM

July 1, 2009— -- While Michael Jackson's untimely death -- and its increasingly sordid aftermath -- continue to dominate the headlines, two media outlets are driving the coverage of this historic event and leaving other, more traditional rivals in the dust. This week, "Nightline" followed TMZ and Us Weekly to get the story behind the story.

Even before Jackson's death, TMZ had made a name for itself dishing out raw and often uncomfortable video and photos of celebrities in a place most of us never see them -- the real world. Both the Web site and its spin-off syndicated television show rely heavily on footage of celebrities stumbling out of clubs or trying to ignore paparazzi at the airport. TMZ supplements this more mundane fodder with the occasional, jaw-dropping scoop -- like the death of Michael Jackson.

To say TMZ broke the Jackson story is an understatement. Their first online bulletin at 5:20 p.m. Eastern Thursday beat the coroner's time of death by six minutes.

Harvey Levin, a 57-year-old former lawyer and TV reporter, is the force behind TMZ.

In the midst of the tabloid war over the Michael Jackson story, the best he could offer Nightline was a few minutes to chat.

The death of one of the biggest celebrity of all time has meant non-stop work for Levin and his team. "It's been tough," he admits. "It's pretty much been waking up in the morning and working until you pass out."

So how did TMZ score the scoop of the year?

Levin is coy, but says it came down to an old-fashioned mix of determination and having the right connections. "The culture here is get on the telephone, call people you know. This is a town truly that is six degrees of separation ... you work hard enough, often times you get what you're looking for."

Levin: 'We're Not a Gossip Site'

TMZ, which is owned by Time Warner, is not shy about paying for tips, but Levin insists that this doesn't undermine their journalistic integrity; just because they might "grease the wheels" doesn't mean they're not verifying what they hear.

"TMZ is a news operation and we are fact based. Our goal is always to take stories and factually source them and present them. We're not a gossip site ... We have things researched, we have things lawyered, we make lots of phone calls ... I mean it's the same principle," he insists.

"Sometimes when you're covering Obama, we're covering Britney but the principles are not necessarily different," he told "Nightline's" Neal Karlinsky.

Unlike relative newcomer TMZ, Us Weekly has long been the standard bearer of the weekly gossip magazines, providing the best photos and the most reliable dirt. It has also survived in a much more traditional, increasingly besieged world — the newsstand. But to a large extent, this survival depends on their ability to report breaking developments straight to its Web site.

"It's really getting to be very viciously competitive among the media with everyone coming out with stories, then trying to dispute someone else's to make theirs seem right," says Ian Drew, Us Weekly senior editor.

The breathtaking pace of the coverage is something to behold. At both publications, the day begins with a flurry, centered on the Jackson kids. By 11 a.m., Us Weekly has reported that Michael Jackson is NOT the father of his three children — and claims the sperm was donated by Jackson dermatologist Arnie Klein.

"It's not coming out in the magazine until tomorrow but in the viral world Internet age, it's good to put it out there right away," explains Drew.

Within the hour, TMZ has upped the ante, not only reporting that Jackson isn't the father but that Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife, was a surrogate and not the kids' biological mother. A few hours later, yet another item — TMZ reports that police were looking for needles in their search of Jackson's home.

For today at least, they're in the lead.

Despite the seemingly endless speculation about Jackson's alleged drug addiction, his sexuality, the fate and parental lineage of his children, and the contents of his will, Levin says there are still certain lines that he will not cross.

When asked if he'd publish a (strictly hypothetical) picture of Jackson's body, Levin simply says "No, no, there are a lot of things that we turn down."

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