Harvey Levin Tells How TMZ Broke Michael Jackson Death News
Before launching GossipCop.com, I toiled for a decade and a half in print and television, where — in the old days — if you had what you thought was an “exclusive,” you spent the night anxiously worrying whether a competing outlet would have the same story the next morning.
Of course, that all changed with the proliferation of blogs.
One year ago today, while meeting with my web designer about last-minute tweaks to GossipCop.com, which launched five weeks later, an e-mail alert came across my Blackberry.
There was silence across the office.
Michael Jackson had died at the age of 50.
And celebrity blog TMZ had broken the news exclusively.
I recently spoke to TMZ’s executive producer, Harvey Levin, about that fateful afternoon for a GossipCop.com story to coincide with the first anniversary of Jackson’s death.
When TMZ got its first tip, at around 1 p.m. PST, that Michael Jackson was being taken to the hospital, “it was not that alarming,” recalled Levin, explaining the singer had “been taken to the hospital many times before” for non-life threatening ailments.
“We didn’t think it was a life/death thing,” said Levin, until he received the next tip that Jackson had gone into full cardiac arrest.
And that’s when a “minor” Michael Jackson hospitalization piece turned into a “huge story” for him.
“Everyone stopped what they were doing,” Levin told me. Not because his team was in total shock, but rather because it was the story and his entire staff, from the reporters to the art department to the support staff — anyone who might know anyone — was needed to call sources and verify the cardiac arrest claim.
“Word came fairly early on it was grave,” Levin vividly remembers.
And after multiple sources provided “credible information,” TMZ was 100 percent certain the King of Pop had passed.
“We knew it long before we published it,” said Levin, whose team nevertheless continued calling sources for a full hour afterwards, double and triple-sourcing their story.
“What could we be missing,” Levin asked himself at the time, wanting “a certain feeling before we pushed the publish button.”
Having confirmed with various parties, TMZ had nailed it.
“There was no doubt” about the scoop said Levin, who was told at the time that “EMTs wanted to pronounce him dead at the house, but Dr. [Conrad] Murray didn’t want to.”
Other outlets quickly began to question whether TMZ stood by its story, and rumors even spread that Jackson was alive and rehearsing at the Staples Center.
At that point, though, the only questions TMZ had, Levin said, were “Why did this 50-year-old die” and were drugs involved? And why did the doctor say Jackson was still alive at the home when EMTs claimed he died in the house?
Without taking a moment to breathe – or even congratulate itself for the year’s biggest celebrity scoop – the TMZ staff immediately got back to business because “We knew there was a much bigger story,” said Levin, rattling off issues, including “drug abuse, celebrity privilege, money, family, trust… ”
Indeed, those subjects will undoubtedly dominate more headlines as the Jackson family, Dr. Murray, creditors, the estate, and sundry other individuals and corporations head into court this year.
Though Levin was initially referring to Jackson’s finances, in a larger sense the TMZ head honcho was correct when he told me, “Michael Jackson may be bigger in death than he was at the end of his life.”
Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: with blogs like TMZ – and now GossipCop.com – looking for scoops every day, the “Moonwalker” star will be the subject of many more cyberspace stories, day and (middle of the) night.