What you see is a little ducky-looking guy posed in a kind of mock mug shot. He looks as if he could be Huey, Dewey and Louie’s human brother. In his right hand is a bottle of something. In his left is the sign with his name he has to hold to his chest for prison identification. It says “Harvey Levin Productions.”
Just to make sure the company logo tells you what you need to know about the Boss’ History, the ducky-looking guy quacks out “I’m a lawyer!” in a sort of living cartoon of pathetic left-coast self-assertion.
Levin’s joking company logo tells you everything you need to know about what he does on “TMZ”: With extremely sophisticated self-mockery masquerading as juvenility, it has turned itself into TV and the Web’s most convincing tabloid source of celebrity skinny.
Don’t tell mainstream journalists that. They know Kardashian Journalism when they see it – endless ribbons of rubbishy non-stories about rubbishy people that shouldn’t matter to anyone but can be conveyed entertainingly because the people doing the “reporting” have all the professional commitment of the lab techs on “CSI” when they go Dumpster diving for evidence.
And last week “TMZ” turned journalism upside down – sports journalism anyway. In the space of four days, a tape of 80-year old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling spewing moronic racism at his mixed-race ex-girlfriend V. Stiviano surfaced on “TMZ,” elicited condemnation by the president at a news conference on another continent and wound up with Sterling bounced out of the NBA by a new commissioner who couldn’t appear at all soft during league playoffs. If he had, he might have found himself with no players in the league at all the next morning, only obscenely wealthy owners cursing themselves for having to share their flock of golden geese with a racist moron.
What happens with actual Clipper ownership and its own coop of golden geese isn’t quite clear yet. But the muddle-headed owner with the recording engineer girlfriend has been enjoined from even attending his former team’s games or practices.
In the most cogent bit of commentary on all of it by far, the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – the most brilliant and challenging pundit to come to my attention in the last six months – called it “the finger-wagging Olympics,” where if people aren’t careful they could get “carpal tunnel syndrome” from that newly discovered American recreation “extreme finger-wagging.”
“What bothers me about the whole Donald Sterling affair” wrote Abdul-Jabbar in Time – “wasn’t just racism. I’m bothered by anyone thinking it was a huge surprise. He was discriminating against Black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record.”
And while Abdul-Jabbar was ruminating publicly and more thoughtfully than anyone else, he also wondered aloud if we shouldn’t be “equally angered by the fact that his private intimate conversation was taped and then released” for the entertainment and edification of one and all.
There was a legal answer to that one – never forget that once upon a time, now-lapsed lawyer Levin had been able to practice law for 20 years: “V. Stiviano” was merely helping the poor boy with his faltering memory.
Never mind that the effect of her supposed succor to the doddering fool was even more swift than Mel Gibson’s television explosion at HIS much-younger girlfriend: an American record of a mere four days between public exposure and catastrophic consequences.
Sterling’s fellow NBA owner Mark Cuban took the moment to publicly deplore everything Sterling said (who on earth wouldn’t?), while at the same time wondering aloud, along with Abdul-Jabbar, at the future fate of all the not-so-sweet-nothings that wealthy idiots might henceforth confide to their technologically adept mistresses and employees. If private stupidities could now be the fuel to burn public holdings to an instant crisp, where does that leave privacy in the world?
Media theorists might point this out: It leaves privacy exactly where Marshall McLuhan and his friend Edmund Carpenter said it was more than 50 years ago – under constant attack from every new electronic advance in communication.
Orthodox mainstream journalism is far from dead. It was smart enough to pick up TMZ’s lead immediately. But the whole Sterling affair revealed that a perfectly timed revelation from the bottom of Kardashian journalism’s garbage can could, in the space of just four days, explode a professional sport and leave one idiot racist owner lying in a ditch.
With his money, of course.
Abdul-Jabbar’s question isn’t answered easily. Why couldn’t orthodox journalism reporting the public record of Sterling’s career do what TMZ did in four days? Why was it Harvey Levin’s website – with its relatively new offshoot TMZ Sports – and its TV show?
I’ve been saying for years now that while pretending to be a proud daily 30 minutes of junky celebrity drivel, “TMZ” on the air is one of the most radical and creatively brilliant shows on the air.
Presented daily as a pitch meeting with Levin parrying the ideas and jabs of his writer/reporters, the show then runs whatever clips it has of insanely dubious “celebrities” at airports, restaurants and parking lots, while a voice that apparently belongs to producer Chris Reed narrates it all with screeching R-rated sarcasm, like some sort of scarily engaging class clown doing the Senior Class History at Class Night.
Put the show together with the TMZ website and almost every “mainstream” journalist alive will readily confess trepidation – and worse – about “news stories” delivered that way.
Except that “TMZ” (referring to the “Thirty Mile Zone” in Los Angeles where the studios are found) was the first to tell the world Michael Jackson was dead. And that Mel Gibson had a notably unusual way of reacting to a DUI bust. And that one of this year’s most exciting teams in the NBA playoffs had an owner with an attitude toward the race comprising 70 percent of his own team that was only a slight update of the attitudes on slave plantations.
It was hardly unique in sports. When the Buffalo Jills sued days before, thereby joining previous NFL cheerleaders in Oakland and Cincinnati in revealing the mind-blowing conditions under which they’re expected to do their bumps, grinds and gymnastics, it brought the whole matter of routine exploitation in American professional sports to the front. But not the way TMZ’s exposure of an astonishingly stupid and appalling old slumlord did.
It didn’t take a genius to guess that the tape to Levin came from someone representing one of the sides involved in a current suit by Sterling’s wife hoping to get back some of the funds and goods rather liberally diverted to V. Stiviano during their relationship.
I’m not sure whom it benefits more to identify Sterling himself as a doddering and racist old fool.
But, courtesy of Levin and his invention, America had four days to wag fingers and reaffirm the ancient wit and wisdom attributed to everyone from Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Dorothy Parker to Yiddish folklore when they told us, “If you want to know that the Lord God thinks of money, look at those he gives it to.”