Harvey Levin, who built a media empire peddling celebrity gossip, saw what it’s like to have your personal business go public when news leaked this week of his private meeting with President Donald Trump.
But the news came as little surprise to a number of TMZ staffers frustrated with Levin’s ties to the administration and what they consider TMZ’s pro-Trump tone.
“All I can tell you is everyone thinks it’s really gross,” a person with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap.
A TMZ insider added: “Many people in the newsroom are uncomfortable with Harvey’s overall Trump coverage.”
The individuals asked not to be further identified for fear of retribution. TMZ did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
On Tuesday, site Entity broke the news that Levin was granted an hour-long meeting with Trump. The New York Times later reported that the visit included a tour of the presidential residence and a stop in the Lincoln Bedroom.
The friendliness between Trump and Levin came as Trump has antagonized more established news outlets, including The New York Times, which he has called “failing,” and CNN, which he has branded “fake news.”
Levin was reportedly angling for a Trump interview for his upcoming Fox News series “OBJECTified.” The show is a spinoff of a highly-rated fall special, “OBJECTified: Donald Trump,” featuring the then-president-elect.
The special, which drew 4 million viewers, came amid rather positive Trump coverage on TMZ: A November story based on interviews with four real estate agents declared, “TRUMP PROPERTIES ON FIRE AFTER ELECTION!!!” The post stated that Trump’s “brand is stronger than ever,” and that “agents say there was some fear before the election … the Trump name would scare buyers away, but that was a miscalculation tied to some wonky poll numbers.”
The TMZ story was posted just two weeks after the New York Times reported that “Sales in Trump Buildings Fall Off.”
In December, TMZ reported that “the President-elect has no interest in courting big Hollywood stars or entertainers to hobnob or perform” at Trump’s inauguration, despite widespread reporting to the contrary, including by TheWrap.
TMZ’s article echoed Trump’s own tweet weeks earlier. “The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!”
Trump’s biggest inaugural event, the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” featuring Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down as its headliners, was dubbed a “total disaster” by The Daily Beast and a “low-wattage concert” by The New York Times. But according to TMZ, it “went down with a bang.”
After Broadway star Jennifer Holliday canceled her inaugural performance following criticism from her gay fans, TMZ reported that the real reason for her cancellation were death threats. Her publicist denied it, saying she was responding to concerns from LGBT fans who objected to Trump’s policies.
The TMZ story helped Trump’s team save face, shifting the blame from Trump’s policies to supposedly threatening people on the left.
“It’s troubling,” Angelo Carusone, president of progressive media watchdog Media Matters, told TheWrap. “TMZ has been running interference for Donald Trump from Day 1.”
Carusone noted that after Macy’s announced it was dropping Trump over his attacks on Mexican immigrants in July of 2015, TMZ was quick to hit back at the retailer, claiming it was “paying the price” for sacking Trump, “because we’ve learned thousands of customers are cutting up their Macy’s credit card in protest.”
“They were just kicking Macy’s constantly,” Carusone said. “It was nothing more than Trump propaganda. Donald Trump was furious… and it was TMZ that was defending him. In the case of Macy’s [TMZ] became an attack dog for Donald Trump.”
Questions surrounding TMZ’s credibility as a news source are nothing new. Last month, rapper Andre Roxx posted a fully nude photo of himself to discredit an erroneous TMZ report that he had cut off his own penis.
“TMZ’s practice of paying for information goes against our code of ethics,” Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online, told TheWrap. “When you pay, you encourage people to overstate what they know.”
When TMZ broke the news of Prince’s death in April, some journalists again wondered whether TMZ should be seen as a legitimate news source. The Washington Post noted that while some were beginning to warm up to the idea, “mainstream news sources are reluctant to rely on its say-so alone. The news, in effect, doesn’t become news until another source matches TMZ’s reporting.”
Journalism experts say that won’t change until TMZ abides by the same ethical rules as its more reputable counterparts.
“I don’t call it journalism,” Tompkins said. “I call it infotainment.”
Editor’s Note: The writer of this article worked as a TMZ producer in 2011.