An expose of TMZ reveals how it leveraged damning video of Justin Bieber for scoops

Justin Bieber Jason Merritt GettyJason Merritt/GettyJustin Bieber.

Over the weekend, the New Yorker released its two-years-in-the-making, 11,000-word expose on what really goes on inside the walls of the most-recognised gossip site, if not always the most loved in Hollywood or other media: TMZ.

Along with countless stories of the bribes and other deals the site (which also has TV shows) makes to get the news on anyone in Hollywood first, there was also an example of how holding onto a juicy story can be a greater benefit.

In the piece, one section is dedicated to how, in 2011, TMZ received an anonymous tip from an unidentified woman using a voice modulator to disguise herself stating that she had a video of then-15-year-old Justin Bieber singing his hit “One Less Lonely Girl” a cappella but substituting the N-word for “girl.”

TMZ moved quickly on the tip. A former production associate received an envelope containing a check for around $80,000 and caught a flight to Las Vegas where he met the tipster and exchanged check for a laptop that had the video.

Following a conversation between TMZ founder Harvey Levin and Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun — who pleaded with Levin not to post the video, saying, “You’re going to ruin this kid’s life” — Levin called Braun to tell him he wasn’t going to put up the video. Bieber later called Levin to thank him.

This led to a string of positive Bieber-related stories on TMZ, and the singer even made appearances on the site’s TV show “TMZ Live.”

A former writer for TMZ told the New Yorker that, for Levin, there was more to gain by not releasing the video and building a relationship with Bieber than ruining his career. (Levin declined the New Yorker’s request for an interview for the story.)

But then in 2014, the Sun published the “One Less Lonely” video, and Levin then pulled the trigger and ran the clip on his other TV show, “TMZ on TV.”

When the Bieber news was brought up on the show, Levin, as the New Yorker puts it, “feigned shock.”

The New Yorker piece notes TMZ has passed on other big tabloid stories in the past, like a photo of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps smoking a bong in 2008 or the lewd voicemails and text messages then-New York Jets quarterback Brett Farve sent to a cheerleader for the team in 2010 (both later ran as stories by their competitors). Levin reportedly believes in protecting children and says he’s not in the business of policing bedrooms.

But those two examples stand out for TMZ’s restraint. What makes the Beiber story stand out is the strategy TMZ uses to control the biggest stars on the planet.

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