After the release of the infamous Access Hollywood video where Trump was caught bragging about sexual assault, Trump struggled to generate positive coverage. One notable exception: TMZ.
The site, best known for celebrity gossip and interviews, landed an “exclusive” from former Miss Teen USA Katie Blair. In an edited two-and-a-half minute video shot from the front seat of a car, Blair says that she “never had a bad experience with him” and “has a great deal of respect for him.” Blair went on to describe, in the words of TMZ, “why Trump couldn’t have done many of the things some other pageant contestants have accused him of doing.” She concluded the video by saying she would vote for Trump.
Trump’s accusers, on the other hand, got harsher treatment. TMZ highlighted how one woman, Jessica Drake, “might’ve pulled off the ultimate publicity stunt — announcing an online sex shop 1 day before accusing The Donald.” The story wasn’t exactly true, Drake’s lawyer later made clear in an email to TMZ, but still served as an effective vehicle to discredit her as a sexual deviant and profiteer.
Another “exclusive” on TMZ reported that Bill Clinton made “trashy, disparaging remarks about women during golf games” with Trump. According to the report, Trump was considering bringing this up in the next presidential debate. TMZ cited “sources familiar with the situation.” (Trump didn’t end up bringing up Clinton’s alleged comments during the debate.)
A former TMZ employee, who spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity, was watching this unfold — and praying for it to end. “In the weeks leading up to the election, it was all Trump all the time… and it was gross.”
But after months of fawning Trump coverage that put the site’s creator, Harvey Levin, at odds with its young, liberal, Los Angeles-area staff, many saw Election Day as the solution.
“In the back of my mind the entire time I was like, ‘All right, you know, come November this will all be over, we won’t have to think about this anymore, we can get back to normal business,” the former TMZ staffer told ThinkProgress.
Then the results came in.
“I felt like I had blood on my hands.”
The morning after the election, Levin, who sits on a raised platform in the center of an open newsroom, got a call. It was Trump. Levin “went into his big sort of conference room right behind my desk,” the former staffer told ThinkProgress, “I don’t really know what they were talking about, but I heard some laughter.”
Trump was the ideal vehicle for TMZ to break into political coverage. A reality TV host and a creature of celebrity culture pursues the most powerful position in the world — all while dishing out TMZ-friendly sound bites on a daily basis.
As Trump has risen, TMZ has quietly emerged as, arguably, the most important pro-Trump outlet in America. Fox News is the largest and best known, but its audience is older and already inclined to support Trump. Breitbart is the most aggressive and strident, but its connection to white nationalism limits its appeal. TMZ attracts a large and diverse audience — precisely the folks Trump needed to reach to stitch together a winning coalition.
Stories on TMZ not only gain a wide audience online but also appear on two nationally syndicated daily television shows (TMZ and TMZ Live) that, in most markets, are aired multiple times each day.
‘Trump is calling you’
One person who understands the importance of TMZ is Donald Trump.
In April 2016, TMZ interviewed Trump on the red carpet and asked him what TV shows he’s watching. “Only TMZ. Only Harvey. That’s all I want to watch,” Trump said with a grin.
In the weeks after taking office, Trump did not grant many one-on-one interviews with reporters. But on March 7, Harvey Levin met with Trump in the Oval Office for an hour. Levin didn’t conduct an interview but was “discussing future opportunities” with Trump.
Several current and former employees of TMZ describe an frequent communication between Trump, his closest associates, and TMZ founder Harvey Levin.
“To Harvey’s credit, he’s out in the open, he has a desk, he’s right there, there’s no secrets,” the TMZ source said. In the lead-up to the election, it would be “pretty common” to hear Levin’s secretary say “Trump is calling you.”
Trump’s relationship with Harvey predated his political campaign. For years, Trump would appear on TMZ television shows to promote his business ventures or weigh in on the issues of the day. In 2012, for example, Trump called into TMZ Live to say that attorney Gloria Allred would be impressed with his penis. (Don’t ask.)
Levin was also heard speaking on the phone with Melania Trump.
More than anyone, Levin spoke to Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen. “You got the sense that Harvey and Cohen were boys. They would laugh and laugh. I think Cohen’s jokes only worked on Harvey, so that’s why they got along.”
Cohen was also a regular guest on TMZ Live.
Cohen was instrumental in orchestrating the Fox News special “Objectified: Donald Trump,” a show where Trump gives Levin a tour of his penthouse and his various mementos. A few days after the election, Levin promoted the special in an appearance on Fox News, saying that it showed that Trump was “humble,” “introspective,” and “self-critical.”
This is Donald Trump in his element, walking me through his house. Showing me items that he kept throughout his life from childhood on and telling me about what was going on when he got them. And this is the way we are telling his life story. And he is humble. I got to say he is introspective. At times self-critical. Fearful in terms of the way he is describing various things in his life, very human.
Trump was a huge fan.
.@FoxNews will be re-running "Objectified: Donald Trump," the ratings hit produced by the great Harvey Levin of TMZ, at 8:00 P.M. Enjoy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
Fox News decided to turn the special into an ongoing series, hosted by Levin. Trump was eager to help out. He reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked him to appear on the show. Netanyahu, who had not done an interview with Israeli media for 8 months, agreed. (Netanyahu denied Trump was involved, but confirmed he would appear on Levin’s show.)
Levin’s personal relationship with Trump, according to several current and former TMZ staffers, dictates the way the Trump is covered on the site.
“I think what it comes down to is that Harvey just really likes powerful people, and he really likes having friends who are powerful, and who better than the President of the United States? I think he’s just blinded by the fact that the President calls him on the phone. I think he just thinks that’s really cool, which I think is unfortunate. Obviously it hasn’t wavered,” one former staffer told ThinkProgress.
Levin also directly communicates with Kellyanne Conway, who TMZ has dubbed “D.C.’s resident rock star.” One TMZ staffer, however, reports that Levin and Conway had a falling out after Conway misled Levin about a story. Since then, she’s been a more muted presence around the TMZ office.
The stories from high-level Trump sources are generally reported and written by Levin himself outside of the normal editorial process. (TMZ stories do not have bylines so Levin’s role is opaque to the public.) Levin, by all accounts, is an efficient and maniacal worker. He could take a tip from Cohen or another source and have it published on the website within 30 minutes.
TMZ has also received scoops that reach deep inside the private life of the Trump family. As Kathy Griffin faced scrutiny for posing with a severed head of Trump, TMZ exclusively reported that Barron, Trump’s 11-year-old son, thought the photo was real. According to “Trump family sources,” Barron panicked and screamed “Mommy! Mommy!” after the photo flashed on TV. The story was similar to Trump’s own tweet about Barron, which he posted almost simultaneously with the TMZ story.
Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
TMZ also was the first to report that Ivanka Trump was “accosted by a passenger” on a Jet Blue flight. Levin, appearing on Fox News that day to promote the story, clearly had a source inside the Trump traveling party. “[T]hey landed not too long ago, and they were escorted on the tarmac to a private jet where they went to their final destination,” Levin told Fox’s Eric Bolling.
TMZ did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ThinkProgress.
‘Arguing with Harvey is not a very fun task’
Levin controls everything at TMZ. He was able to seed the site with “exclusives” from his Trump sources, which included Donald Trump himself. But he also made sure to spike stories that painted Trump or his family in a particularly negative light.
One current staff member at TMZ reports that many negative stories about Trump “would be shut down” without explanation. At TMZ, like at many publications, writers pitch potential stories to editors in a daily meeting. Editors, including Levin, make the decision whether to accept the pitch or reject it. Editors can also decide to kill a story after it is written. One former TMZ staff member who spoke to ThinkProgress personally had several investigative stories that cast Trump and his family in a negative light spiked.
Some unflattering pieces about Trump do appear on TMZ, but they are generally either breaking news or celebrities saying something outrageous. The “exclusive” stories that drive news and are heavily featured on the TMZ TV shows are almost all favorable to Trump.
But Levin’s control over TMZ’s political content goes well beyond spiking stories. He controls the message through the force of his personality. The staff serves up pro-Trump content because they know that’s what Levin wants to publish.
“[H]e has the final say on everything, so I mean, regardless — most people kind of have the notion that it’s better to just kind of grin and bear it and do your work and go home,” a former TMZ staffer told ThinkProgress. “[A]rguing with Harvey is not a very fun task, so most people would rather just kind of do what they know is going to work for him.”
Leveraging a young, liberal newsroom to push a relentlessly pro-Trump agenda created significant tension in the TMZ newsroom. As election day approached, Harvey tasked his research team — a team comprised of mostly young women— with uncovering information to discredit the women accusing Trump of sexual harassment.
“I’m sure this woman is lying,” a former TMZ staffer heard Harvey say in the newsroom, referring to one of Trump’s accusers.
One former TMZ staffer said working with Harvey on political stories felt “disgusting.”
“I had conversations with a lot of people during that time who were just disgusted with what was happening,” a different former TMZ staffer told ThinkProgress. “I certainly think there was this attitude of people really kind of being frustrated with him, and kind of disappointed in him, because it felt like he had this agenda that he was kind of letting everybody down. He was blinded by his powerful friend.”
Not everyone objected to Harvey’s approach, but everyone acknowledged the reality. Another former TMZ staffer, who repeatedly praised Levin, told ThinkProgress that it was understandable that Harvey “had a vested interest” in Trump and used the site to “push for him” since they were friends.
‘Kendall Jenner & Voter Fraud’
Levin’s desire to promote Trump has caused him to make some mistakes. Toward the end of the campaign, either to spin a potential loss or to motivate his supporters, played up the threat of voter fraud. Trump’s claims lacked evidence, subjecting him to a flood of critical coverage.
“NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and most blogs are trying to convince you there is virtually NO EVIDENCE of voter fraud, so Trump’s fears are bogus,” TMZ wrote. “[W]e drilled down and some officials who run the voting systems around the country are VERY worried about fraudulent voting.”
The TMZ piece cites three election officials. “Marcy Crawford, Deputy Commissioner of the Board of Elections for Allegany County, tells us voter fraud in her county is a real concern,” TMZ reported. This story was then promoted on TMZ Live.
Levin later appeared on a Fox affiliate and seamlessly transitioned from a segment on Kendall Jenner, to pushing this Trump-friendly story.
ProPublica later talked to Crawford, who disputed the report. “That’s not what I said,” Crawford told ProPublica. Another official quoted by TMZ to support Trump’s claims told ProPublica that “voter fraud has not been an issue and I don’t expect it to be an issue going forward.”
In response, TMZ issued a statement saying that they stood behind the reporting. It remains published without update or correction.
The power of TMZ comes not from its focus on political news, but its ability to attract an apolitical — and thus more malleable — audience. Viewers and readers come for Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Amber Rose. And they get plenty of that.
But they also get a steady stream of pro-Trump coverage. It’s coverage that treats Trump as he wants to be treated — as the biggest celebrity in the world, worthy of your admiration. Like Trump, TMZ doesn’t spend much time picking through the policy details. But when TMZ does, it generally takes Trump’s side.
With the election in the rearview mirror, things don’t seem like they are changing.
“It just became about now promoting him as president, rather than promoting him as a candidate. So it didn’t stop after the election at all; if anything it probably got even crazier,” a TMZ staffer told ThinkProgress.