Appetite for gossip fuels round-the-clock industry

A growing constellation of websites, magazines and television programmes serve it up minute by minute

catering to the basic instinct David Perel, who runs Radar Online out of his home, on a conference call with staff in Los Angeles from his home office in Delray Beach, Florida. NYTMichael Lohan was hardly morose about his own legal troubles. His hotel room and the hallway outside it buzzed with giddy deal-making as he and his entourage conducted business with the door open. It could all be overheard by passers-by — or, by coincidence, a ‘New York Times’ reporter staying in the room across the way.

An associate of Lohan’s ran through the plan: Ignite a bidding war between TMZ and its rival website Radar for Lohan’s side of the story and for embarrassing recordings he claimed to have of his fiancee, Kate Major. “What you have to do is monetise this,” the associate said, adding, “What you want is to make them pay for that exclusivity.”

Sure enough, Radar went on to post four ‘exclusives’ quoting Lohan denying the charges and threatening to release tapes of Major.

This is how it works in the new world of round-the-clock gossip, where even a B-list celebrity’s tangle with the law can be spun into easy money, feeding the public’s seemingly bottomless appetite for dirt about the famous.

A growing constellation of websites, magazines and television programmes serve it up minute by minute, creating a river of cash for secrets of the stars, or near-stars. An analysis of advertising estimates from those outlets shows that the revenue stream now tops more than $3 billion annually.

This new secrets exchange has its own set of bankable stars and one-hit wonders, high-rolling power brokers and low-level scammers, many of whom follow a fluid set of rules that do not always comport with those of state and federal law, let alone those of family or friendship.

Now there is a growing effort to stop the flow of private information. In the past few years, a federal department of justice team in Los Angeles has conducted a wide-ranging investigation into illegal leaks of celebrity health records and other confidential files, according to officials involved. Working in secret, they have plumbed cases involving Tiger Woods, Britney Spears and Farrah Fawcett, among others.

Increasingly, celebrities are not just victims. With only so many big time personalities in rehab, facing indictment or — a la Charlie Sheen — in public crack-up mode, a raft of reality stars, former reality stars and would-be reality stars have filled the breach with attention-grabbing antics of their own.

Posting more than 30 exclusive items a day is common. “We’re trying to build what they call addicts online,” Perel said. TMZ, owned by Time Warner, created the model in 2005, upending the entertainment news business by proving that a huge audience exists for continuous gossip updates. Its founding followed the emergence of savvy ‘celebutantes’ like Paris Hilton, who were happy to invite selected paparazzi to track their every move.

One of its first blockbusters was the leaked report on Mel Gibson’s drunken driving arrest in 2006 that famously recounted his anti-Semitic, misogynistic rant. Authorities investigated a sheriff’s deputy they suspected had been paid for the report, but did not press charges. Both the deputy and TMZ have denied any transaction. TMZ declined to comment for this article.

Coincidentally, Radar Online had an early success with another case involving Gibson, revealing tapes of an argument between him and a former girlfriend, copies of which had been under court seal. Perhaps it is only fitting that the 2007 California law making it a crime for law enforcement personnel to sell confidential information is known as Mel’s Law.

Feeding the machine

In this overheated gossip marketplace, where the need for fresh fodder routinely turns bad behaviour into ‘news’, the Lohans are prototypes of new Hollywood characters — celebrities famous for being infamous.

Lindsay Lohan’s lawyer, Shawn Chapman Holley, who served on O J Simpson’s defence team, said the media circus surrounding Simpson’s murder trial was quaint in comparison. “There’s this unbelievable hunger for a constant flow of information about these people,” Holley said. “So everybody has to feed this machine all the time.” Often, that ends up being Lohan’s father.

When asked in an interview about his attempt to ‘monetise’ his harassment charge last summer, Michael Lohan answered, “You have to.” Lohan has extended his role beyond his own family, joining the ranks of ‘story brokers’ who negotiate gossip-for-pay deals.

The federal law enforcement team established the clearest link between private records and a gossip outlet two years ago by following the trail of Farrah Fawcett’s medical file.

The official said agents were investigating ‘The National Enquirer’s conduct, although no charges had been filed when Jackson and Fawcett both died, effectively ending the case. Jackson’s husband, Victor, said that while he had advised his wife against it, she had a simple reason for working with ‘The Enquirer’: “Easy money.”

Dawn Holland, a $22,000-a-year worker at the Betty Ford Centre, has a similar explanation. The drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre, tucked away in Rancho Mirage, California, some 120 miles east of Los Angeles, takes its patients’ privacy seriously. In its nearly 30-year history, the centre had never lost control of a patient file — until it brushed up against the Lindsay Lohan story.

Lohan was sent there last fall as part of her sentence for violating probation on a drunken driving case. One night when Holland tried to administer a breathalyzer test, Lohan refused and threw a phone at her, Holland alleged in an internal report, resulting in a criminal investigation. That report, part of Lohan’s confidential file, wound up on TMZ.

Holland quickly admitted in an interview with Radar that TMZ had paid her at least $10,000, which drew the interest of the federal investigators.
Holland said in an interview that TMZ paid the money through a bank account belonging to her lawyer, Keith Davidson, who has other clients who have appeared on TMZ. Holland said Davidson told her he learned about her case from people at the site.
“If I could turn back the hands of time, I would not have done it,” she said. Holland hired a new lawyer, Owen L McIntosh, after questioning the strategy she said Davidson had persuaded her to pursue. It included ceasing cooperation with authorities against Lindsay Lohan and a deal to meet with Lohan to make peace, and then sell pictures of the moment for up to $25,000.

The arrangement was being pushed by none other than Michael Lohan.
The plan never went forward, and it is unclear just how open Lindsay Lohan is to her father’s advice these days. A few weeks later she apparently cut off contact with him. This was reported by her mother, Dina — in a Radar ‘exclusive’.

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