But Thats None Of My Business

But Thats None Of My Business

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The Invention That Could End Obesity

A Michigan surgeon invented an apparatus that he believes tricks the brain into thinking the stomach is full. His Full Sense Device could be a lifesaver for millions of obese Americans and raises questions about how hunger — our most basic human impulse — even works.

Bonnie Lauria was miserable. She was subsisting on liquids and a handful of foods her stomach could handle. Ever since she’d undergone gastric bypass surgery in the ’80s, foods like meat and bread that went down her throat in a lump would come right back up. “I knew where every bathroom was in every restaurant in the state,” Lauria says from her home in West Branch, Michigan. “It was horrendous.”

During gastric bypass surgery, the stomach is reduced to about the size of a walnut and attached to the middle of the small intestine. Lauria’s complications from the surgery weren’t normal, so she went under the knife a second time. Still, her condition didn’t change. She switched doctors several times, but no one could help. Eventually, someone recommended bariatric surgeon Dr. Randy Baker in Grand Rapids in 2004.

Baker ran some tests and saw that the spot where Lauria’s walnut-size pouch met her small bowel was tightening. Previous doctors had tried to widen the passage so that food could pass through, but the stricture had returned. Complicating Lauria’s condition were those multiple surgeries, which left so much scar tissue that operating again would be too difficult and too dangerous.

Dr. Randal S. Baker. Erin Kirkland / BuzzFeed News

Baker was at a loss. Then he started thinking about esophageal stents. Just like a coronary stent keeps an artery open, an esophageal stent holds the esophagus open and is often used in patients who have difficulty swallowing. What if one of those could prop open the small bowel too?

As far as Baker knew, no one had ever attempted a procedure like that before. But Lauria was out of options, so Baker told her his strategy. She agreed; he inserted the stent and hoped for the best.

“She came back to my office two weeks later and said, ‘Dr. Baker, I’m feeling great. I can eat sloppy Joes!’” Baker says. “Here’s a lady who could only do liquids, and now she can eat solids. And she’s losing weight.”

Lauria didn’t have an explanation; she told Baker she simply wasn’t hungry anymore. Baker wondered if he and other bariatric surgeons had been going at it all wrong. The stent, he theorized, was putting pressure at the top of Lauria’s pouch and sending signals to her brain saying, “I’m full.” It was doing what food does, but without actual food. Which raised some questions: What if we don’t need invasive surgeries that cut away portions of the stomach and rearrange the digestive tract and intestines? What if all we need is a device that puts pressure near the top of the stomach?

Baker set out to test his hypothesis, teaming up with a former product specialist from W.L. Gore (creators of Gore-Tex) and two surgeons at his Grand Rapids practice to create the Full Sense Device — a nitinol wire-mesh funnel coated in silicone that can be inserted through the mouth and placed in less than 10 minutes. Current plans would allow the device to remain for up to six months before removal, though in the future that time may be longer. In the company’s trials, every patient implanted with the device lost weight and continued to lose weight until the device was removed. Baker calls the phenomenon “implied satiety.” At six months, average patients lost 75% of their excess body weight — significantly more and at a faster rate than any bariatric procedure, and all, Baker says, with no “severe adverse side effects.”

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that 160 million Americans — nearly half — are overweight as indicated by their body mass index, which is calculated from a person’s height and weight. (A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight; 30-plus is obese.) Of those people, 24 million are estimated to be morbidly obese, meaning they have a BMI over 40 and are at higher risk for serious, life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, degenerative arthritis, and cancer. Bariatric surgeries can and often do lead to impressive weight loss, yet only 1% of obese Americans opts for the invasive and costly procedure — usually $20,000 to $30,000. (Rex Ryan, Roseanne Barr, Carnie Wilson, Al Roker, Chris Christie, Randy Jackson, and Star Jones are reported to be among the 1%.)

“There are a bunch of things that contribute to that,” says Randy Seeley, an obesity researcher and professor of surgery at the University of Michigan. “One is the ick factor — ‘someone is going to chop up my GI tract.’ Some of it is cost — it’s still not universally covered. Third is stigma. The implication is that it’s the easy way out — you’re cheating somehow by taking that option — which goes to our societal biases about obesity.”

Dr. Baker has come up with a nonsurgical device that he says will enable obese patients to lose substantial weight, and at a fraction of the cost of surgery — in the neighborhood of $5,000 at an outpatient center. A company claiming to have found a simple solution to drastic, easy weight loss is, of course, nothing new; in fact, it’s big business. (See: late-night infomercials.) Some surgeons and researchers are skeptical of Baker’s pressure theory, and at least one patient experienced chronic acid reflux after the device was inserted. But more than 10 years after the eureka moment, Baker is hopeful that doctors in Europe could begin using the Full Sense Device this year and in Canada and Mexico soon after. Americans will have to wait longer; Food and Drug Administration approval is unpredictable and likely still years away. Baker’s concern, though, is that the Full Sense Device might work too well. If it’s effective, easy, and cheap, what’s to stop people from abusing it?

“When this hits the market, there’s not going to be just 10,000 to 15,000 people having it,” says Fred Walburn, president and sole employee of Full Sense Device’s parent company, BFKW. “There’s going to be hundreds of thousands. Millions per year.”

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At Grand Health Partners, the Grand Rapids practice Randy Baker shares with other bariatric surgeons, including his business partners Dr. James Foote and Dr. Paul Kemmeter (the F and K in BFKW), the hallways are extra wide and the doors are oversize. Waiting-room chairs are huge. Even the toilets are bigger and mounted to the floor (not the wall) to better accommodate obese patients. Everything is designed for the comfort of patients who are used to being uncomfortable wherever they go.

On a fall afternoon, Baker shows me into Grand Health Partners’ endoscopy suite, where I watch him put a scope down patients’ throats to investigate postoperative acid reflux and take preoperative biopsies.

In black slacks and a striped button-down, Baker, 50, taps on his iPad while nurses sedate the patients. Despite his 6-foot-5-inch frame, he’s not an imposing figure. With tidy, graying hair and black, wire-rimmed glasses, he has the kind but serious air of a high-school chemistry teacher. When he explains that he discovered something no one else had thought of, he says it with zero dramatic flair. The most animated version of Baker shows up when he explains something, and I respond in a way that communicates an understanding of the concept. “Exactly!” he says.

Each endoscopy is quick — 10, maybe 15 minutes. Patients aren’t in a deep sleep; inserting the scope only requires sedation as opposed to the general anesthesia that is often needed for surgery. Some of these patients will see Baker again in the coming weeks for a 60- to 75-minute sleeve gastrectomy, his preferred bariatric surgery. Such procedures are most often a last resort for morbidly obese patients.

Later that night, as I’m sitting across from Baker at Kitchen 67, a chic Grand Rapids bistro with rows of pulsating screens on the ceiling and iPads in the booths, Baker prays for our meal and our families. He’s the father of nine, an elder at his church, and the board president of Zion Christian School, where he led the charge in revamping the entire curriculum. He and his family used to sing and tour in a Southern gospel group. Baker recommends the burgers, noting that I should feel free to build my own burger instead of choosing one of the restaurant’s signature varieties. “I don’t like categories,” he says.

Once I finish my cheeseburger, Baker takes out his MacBook and queues up a video of a bariatric surgery. An extreme close-up of white-and-red gut gore appears on the screen, followed by a harmonic scalpel that looks like a serrated pincer, which begins squeezing and cutting masses of surprisingly tough, glistening white fat from a pinkish mass that Baker tells me is the stomach — “the second biggest I’ve ever seen.” I glance around the restaurant and ask him if we can turn the screen a bit so as not to ruin someone else’s dinner.

Even though he’s performed thousands of bariatric surgeries, Baker hasn’t lost sight of the harsh, invasive nature of what’s happening in that video. He explains that he spends most of each surgery attempting to gain access to the stomach. Obese patients have so much fat, not to mention an enlarged stomach and liver, that the workspace is cramped. The flimsy spleen is close by, as well. Brush it ever so slightly and it’ll bleed. Plus, there are vessels hidden in the fat. If a surgeon hits a vessel that starts to bleed, it sets off a frantic search to find the source.

“I had a patient who died once from a different surgery because there was an abnormal vessel in an abnormal place, and it started bleeding,” Baker says. As surgeries go, these are relatively safe. Mortality rates for three common procedures — gastric bypass (also called Roux-en-Y), vertical sleeve gastrectomy, and gastric banding — range from 0.14% to 0.03%, which are lower than gallbladder removal or hip-replacement surgery mortality rates.

“This one started to bleed a little bit,” Baker says, pointing to a spot on the screen. “I’m guessing where the bleeding is, but I can’t tell. Can you tell where the bleeding is?” I’m clueless. He closes the computer. “This is the best we have right now,” he says. “When I’m operating on big patients, I’m thinking, This would be a piece of cake if we popped in a Full Sense Device. The biggest highway to the stomach is not through the abdomen. It’s through the mouth!”

Photograph by Erin Kirkland for BuzzFeed News

Though the concept of hunger may seem simple, it isn’t, nor is it understood entirely. Scientists haven’t pinned down exactly how the stomach communicates with the brain. The interaction between gut hormones and the nervous system is key — ghrelin and leptin, for instance, act on neural components of hunger — but there isn’t a complete set of answers for how the gut regulates appetite.

There’s also no consensus as to how or why bariatric surgery often leads to dramatic weight loss and diabetic improvements (or why sometimes it doesn’t). Most bariatric surgeons were taught that the procedures lead to weight loss through restriction and/or malabsorption, and many still hold fast to those two explanations. The restriction theory says that the surgeries lead to weight loss by limiting the amount of food the body can hold. Malabsorption — when something is bypassed to reduce absorption of calories — is also thought to play a role in gastric bypass. But research from the past few years suggests that there are, at the very least, more things going on.

What makes a gastric bypass patient eat less, Baker theorizes, is that it takes less food to put enough pressure on the stomach so that it sends neurological and hormonal signals to the brain saying, “I’m full.”

“People used to think satiety was on or off,” Baker says. “You’re hungry or you’re not hungry.” But Baker says it’s actually a continuum. When there’s nothing in the stomach you have hunger, then you progress to “not hungry,” then levels of fullness, then nausea, then vomiting. “The more pressure you put on,” he says, “the higher you get up that cycle.”

Randy Seeley, the University of Michigan researcher, has a different take. “It’s very clear that restriction and malabsorption have little to do with how surgery works,” says Seeley. His research points instead to the importance of gut bacteria — particularly the hormonal action of bile acids — after surgery.

While Seeley says he’s willing to be convinced by data, he’s no less skeptical of Baker’s pressure theory. There are stretch receptors in the stomach, and the nerves there do respond and generate a signal when you stretch those receptors. But he wonders how much that matters to body weight. “For [Baker] to say that it’s not about restriction is getting outside of a surgeon’s box,” Seeley says. “But to say that it’s pressure, for me, is not changing the box very much.”

Baker agrees that gut bacteria and hormones are important, but thinks the stomach’s upper portion is the gut’s brain, which sets other processes in motion. Still, many questions remain regarding the roles restriction, malabsorption, pressure, hormones, and nerves play in bariatric surgery, and the answers will likely determine whether the Full Sense Device is a legitimate, long-term alternative to weight-loss surgery.

“When we have all those answers, we can put surgeons out of business,” Seeley says.

DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini / Getty Images

First came the animal studies. Between 2005 and 2008, BFKW held five studies using beagles, which are less prone to ulcers than pigs and have an esophagus similar in length and width to a human’s.

“We ended up having 1% total body weight [loss] per day,” Baker says of the final six-week beagle study. “In the protocols, they said if you get to 20% weight loss, you euthanize the animals. The vets came to us and said, ‘We’re at that 20% rate. Most of the time, animals that lose this weight will become lethargic. These animals are wagging their tails. We’ve never seen anything like this. They’re starving themselves to death, and they’re happy about it.’”

The dogs were actually losing too much weight, so the device was later softened. Also, in a few of the dogs, the device fell out. “The instant they migrated, the dogs were hungry,” Walburn says. (Walburn had quit his job at Gore and moved to Grand Rapids to work full-time on the Full Sense Device.) “They ate every bit of food that was in their cage.”

BFKW’s patient trials have been overseen by Baker, Foote, and Dr. Jorge Trevino, a surgeon in Cancun. The first six-week study in November 2008 was limited to three patients who were fitted with the device and told to go on a liquid diet for one week, then eat normally. They also met with a nutritionist. All three lost significant weight.

Just as the beagles had been, the initial trial patients “were just happy,” Walburn says, explaining what they believe is going on: “Because of the pressure on the top of the stomach, the body does not think you’re dieting. It thinks you’re full. It does not reduce the metabolism like what happens when you go on a diet.” In other words, the body doesn’t think it’s being starved for nutrition.

After making some tweaks, BFKW did a randomized controlled trial, which is the gold standard for clinical trials of drugs and medical devices. The randomized controlled trial was three months long and involved a relatively small sample of 18 patients, six of whom were in the control group and received no treatment. At three months, the control group had 15% excess weight loss compared with 42% in the group that had the device. BFKW then did a “crossover trial,” taking three of the patients from the control group and fitting them with the device.

“We put the device in them, and boom — if you compare that to when they thought they had the device but they didn’t, there’s a clear, statistical difference,” says Baker, who indicates that every patient — about 110 of them at this point — in the company’s various trials has lost weight and continued to lose weight with the device in place.

In a taped interview in Mexico, 41-year-old primary-care physician Manuel Perez explains in Spanish that the stress of studying medicine caused him to gain weight and eventually develop diabetes. His weight peaked around 285 pounds. After injuring his back, he couldn’t exercise much, and going to a nutritionist didn’t help. (“Mexican food is very delicious, so I couldn’t continue with the diet adequately,” he says.) Once fitted with the Full Sense Device in Cancun, Perez says he could control his diet better and he didn’t spend as much money on food. He lost 46 pounds in six weeks, and his diabetes and high blood pressure disappeared. His back pain went away too.

“Before I wanted to fill myself,” Perez says. “Now I eat very little.”

Not everyone’s story is as rosy as Perez’s, though. When I spoke to 49-year-old Cancun patient Luz del Carmen Gabriel, who had her Full Sense Device removed in January, she complained of severe acid reflux and nausea for the four months the device was in place. “It was uncomfortable when I slept,” Gabriel says. “I had to sleep sitting almost.”

Baker says Gabriel’s reflux was directly related to her size. She’s 4 feet 8 inches tall, which means she has a shorter esophagus than the average patient, and right now there’s only one size of the Full Sense Device. In the future, Baker hopes to have several sizes customized to a person’s height.

Gabriel says she wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Full Sense to others because of the reflux she experienced. “I got it bad,” she says. “Other patients didn’t get it at all.” But she’s satisfied with her weight loss from the device, which worked better than the pills and diets she’d tried. She ate “much less,” she says. Last summer Gabriel had a BMI of 32, and now she’s down to a BMI of 24, putting her in the normal, healthy range. She lost nearly 40 pounds, which means, because of her small stature, she achieved more than 100% of her excess body weight loss.

“Of course it was worth it,” she says. “I feel more flexible. I feel more comfortable in my clothes … I feel better when I see myself. I feel good.”

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Baker and his partners are submitting the device for CE mark certification, which would grant approval for use throughout Europe, a process that is typically cheaper and more expedient than the FDA process. Also, the FDA says it requires a device to be both safe and effective, whereas the CE mark focuses only on safety. According to this model, as long as the Full Sense Device is safe, if no one loses weight with it, doctors will stop using it and patients won’t request it.

“We have six or seven centers identified and ready to go in Europe,” Baker says. “These are doctors who have a history of research — top-notch doctors.”

One of those is Shaw Somers, known in the U.K. as the bariatric surgeon on reality TV shows The Food Hospital and Fat Surgeons. Somers met Baker at a surgical conference in Istanbul in August 2013.

“There’s always a dose of skepticism when someone comes out with a claim that something works as well as a major intervention,” Somers says. “Most of the other implantable devices we use and have experience with aren’t as good.” But Somers, who doesn’t have a financial stake in the product or parent company BFKW, believes this one is different. “The Full Sense Device ticks all the right boxes,” he says. “It’s effective, easy to take in and out. There’s nothing out [there] to give it a run for its money.”

Since the U.S. doesn’t allow human trials unless it’s part of the FDA’s approval process, all of the Full Sense patient studies have been conducted in Cancun. Somers expects a call this year to head down to Mexico for training on insertion and removal of the device, and he’ll use that experience to put together a package of care at his own center. Baker and Somers say these “centers of excellence” are key to bringing the Full Sense Device to market. They will be equipped with resources similar to a practice like Baker’s Grand Health Partners, which includes dietitians, exercise physiologists, and behaviorists who specialize in bariatric psychology. The practice has its own store stocked with recommended (and GHP-branded) foods.

“It’s not, ‘Let’s just pile them high and sell them cheap,’” Somers says. “No device will work simply by implanting it without some type of instruction and modification of lifestyle. You need to manage patients in the medium term and longer term. What this industry does not need is a quick fix.”

Baker is fairly optimistic about the timeline and likelihood of FDA approval, especially after the approval in January of EnteroMedics’ Maestro System — the first medical device OK’d to treat obesity since 2007. That surgically implanted device is similar to a pacemaker, sending electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, which plays a role in the stomach’s communication with the brain. Headlines touted the “appetite-zapping implant” and even conspiracy theorist Alex Jones got in on the action, using the approval to decry the “deadly secrets of a hackable fat chip.” But there’s a question of how well the device works: Patients in a yearlong clinical trial did lose weight, but the 156 patients who received the device lost only 8.5% more of their excess weight than the 76 patients who were given a placebo implant.

This isn’t the first time a company has developed a stomach pacemaker. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that “a new wave of implantable stomach devices could transform the way doctors approach obesity,” focusing particularly on the Transcend gastric stimulator, often referred to as a “gastric pacemaker” because, like the Maestro system, it sends electrical pulses to the stomach in hopes of regulating appetite. Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical-device companies, purchased Transcend’s parent company for $260 million in 2005. But trials didn’t show a significant difference in weight loss between those who had the device implanted and those who did not. Transcend is still available in Europe as a treatment for obesity, but the FDA never approved it.

Despite similar doubts over the efficacy of EnteroMedics’ Maestro system, last summer an advisory panel decided the potential benefits of the device outweighed the risks, and the FDA followed suit with its approval. The high expectations for another questionably effective gastric pacemaker — which will cost between $15,000 and $30,000, about the same price as bariatric surgery — shows just how hungry the FDA, medical-device companies, and the general public are for an obesity-fighting alternative to bariatric surgery. And more endoscopic devices — balloons, fillers, liners — are on the way. One in the pipeline is GI Dynamics’ EndoBarrier, a liner placed at the beginning of the small intestine that was approved in Europe and is undergoing clinical trials in the U.S. In a previous trial, average excess weight loss with the EndoBarrier was 19% after three months — better than Maestro or Transcend, but not as impressive as BFKW’s studies.

Dr. Baker with Fred Walburn, president of BFKW Erin Kirkland / BuzzFeed News

Fred Walburn, president of BFKW, is more cautious than Baker about FDA approval for the Full Sense Device. He estimates the company won’t even begin the FDA process for three or four years. Walburn thinks the Full Sense Device could make the FDA nervous, but for precisely the reason you’d think it shouldn’t make a regulatory agency nervous. “If you’re a regulatory person, and everything you’ve done looks great,” Walburn says, “but there’s some tiny thing we’re missing, we’re not going to miss it in 1,000 patients. There’s gonna be a million people. If we made a mistake in approving it, we’ll get hauled in front of Congress.”

“That’s the big issue,” he says. “If it wasn’t [as] effective, and it would have a smaller market potential, it would be easily approved.”

Mary McGuire Photograph by Erin Kirkland for BuzzFeed News

Around 2009, Mary McGuire was watching TV with her husband when the local news ran a segment about Baker and the Full Sense Device. “I just looked at my husband and said, ‘Oh my gosh. This could be what I’ve been looking for,’” McGuire says. McGuire is 5 feet 5 inches and 291 pounds.

When McGuire was young, her mother would make doughnuts at home. The warm dough coated in cinnamon and powdered sugar was a special treat, though — not something they did all the time. When McGuire was just 7, her mother, a dietitian, died of pancreatic cancer. “Back then, you just kind of dealt with it,” McGuire says. “I never really had anyone to talk to about it.” Her father, now a single parent, would buy himself treats for his brown-bag lunches for his workweek: “He would take a paper bag for the week and have it full of sweets, and he would hide it up in the cupboard,” McGuire remembers. “He thought he was hiding it, but we all knew where it was. I would get home from school before he did, so I would get up on the chair to get into the cupboard and eat some cookies. When I lost my mom, that was my comfort food.”

McGuire, 53, still loves sweets: chocolate, cake, cookies, doughnuts. “If I get bad news about something, I’ll go to food,” she says. “Or happy too. A lot of times it’s boredom. A lot of times it’s stress. Some people pick up a cigarette. I pick up food. It comforts me. It relaxes me.”

Everything else she had tried either didn’t work or helped only temporarily: Weight Watchers, Slim-Fast, South Beach, Overeaters Anonymous, TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly), and Adipex, an appetite suppressant. Adipex helped her get down to 230, but she slowly gained it all back. None of the diets or portion-control strategies combined with exercise left her feeling satisfied. “I don’t get that full feeling,” she says. “That’s what I’m looking for. I want that sensation.”

McGuire emailed Fred Walburn after watching the TV segment, and ever since she’s been checking the company’s website for updates on the Full Sense Device. She’s convinced it’s the best solution for her. “It’s just so promising,” she says. “It makes sense to me.”

McGuire speaks about the piece of silicone and wire like it’s her destiny and last great hope. She goes to a pain clinic for pinched nerves in both her legs and struggles with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and edema. “I told my doctor the other day I feel like a beached whale,” she says. “I don’t want to be this big again. It’s awful. I hate it.”

Despite her desperation, McGuire won’t entertain the notion of bariatric surgery even for a second. A breast cancer survivor, she’s already had to endure more than 20 surgeries. But she can feel the clock ticking. “I know what my future holds if I don’t do something,” she says. “It’s not gonna be good.”

Photograph by Erin Kirkland for BuzzFeed News

Even if the Full Sense Device is approved and becomes an alternative to bariatric surgery, the question remains as to whether it’ll be able to provide lasting weight loss. Dr. Steven Bowers, a surgeon with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, says the device is interesting, but he puts it in the same group as any other temporary, endoscopic weight-loss device. “It’s not astonishing that you can get the weight off people,” Bowers says. “The tricky part is the weight maintenance afterwards.”

Researcher Randy Seeley has similar concerns. “I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that when you take it out, people will gain the weight back,” Seeley says. “People want to think they’ll be so happy as a lean person that they’ll learn to be lean. And therefore, once they experience what it’s like to be leaner, they’re gonna stay lean. And that just doesn’t happen. There’s a reason why there’s no reunion shows for all the people who’ve been on The Biggest Loser.”

Baker acknowledges there will always be recidivism, but the ability to start over at an obese patient’s optimal weight is significant. And he maintains that no other weight-loss option currently available can match the Full Sense Device. “Nothing we have delivers 100%,” he says. “It is true — if patients want the best chance of keeping the weight off, they need to learn how to exercise and do all these other things right. But that’s true for everything. That’s true for surgery.”

Baker is less concerned about the device working than it working too well. Remember the beagles who were starving themselves to death and happy about it? What if irresponsible doctors allow overeager patients to lose unhealthy amounts of weight? What if this device becomes a new fad diet? “Somebody will abuse it, and I don’t like that,” Baker says. “But how do you deal with that?”

After Baker and his team safely removed the Full Sense Device from 10 more patients this month in Cancun, BFKW achieved “design freeze,” meaning the company is done tweaking (for now) and can move forward with the remainder of CE mark submission. Sometime this year, Shaw Somers and other surgeons from around the world will head to Mexico for training. As Walburn finishes the European approval process, he also has to keep the horse blinders on Baker, who’s already sketching out adjustable and absorbable versions of the device — ones that would potentially allow patients to keep the device in place for more than six months and could be tailored to each patient’s body type, whether morbidly obese or just overweight. “Randy is a chess player,” Walburn says. “He’s thinking two or three moves ahead. I don’t want him to stop, but I have to stay focused. I just tell him, ‘Write it down.’”

Bonnie Lauria hadn’t realized how far Baker had come in bringing his device to market until we spoke. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d still know where all the bathrooms in every restaurant are,” she says. “He saved me a lot of years of suffering.” She also needs help again. It’s been decades since her gastric bypass, and Lauria, now 73, hasn’t been able to keep the extra weight off. Back in 2004, she was allowed to keep her esophageal stent in for only six weeks. “I was happy because I’d started losing weight,” she says. “I’d like to have that stent back, I’ll tell you that. It works.”

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The Life And Last Days Of Jordan Davis

When Michael Dunn was on trial for killing a 17-year-old in Jacksonville, most didn’t know much more about the victim other than that he was shot over a dispute over “loud music.” But before Jordan Davis became another symbol of Florida’s deeply divisive “stand your ground” policy, he was just a kid. This is his story, told by the friends and family who knew him best.

Photos courtesy of Lucy McBath, Ron Davis, and Aaron Johnson / Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

On Monday nights, Jordan Davis skated at the roller rink in his Atlanta-area neighborhood of Marietta, Ga. Skating was only a dollar. Pizza and soda only cost a dollar too. Jordan went every Monday for five years.

Jordan’s mom, Lucy McBath, piled the kids from Jordan’s homeschool co-op group into her SUV and drove them to rink. She liked to skate too. “It would be funny because I would deliberately be passing him and be like, ‘Hey, Jordan,'” Lucy said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed. “I would be needling him as I was skating past: Jordan, I love you!”

“Mom, you’re embarrassing me!” Jordan would respond.

Once a night at the roller rink, a special song came on that meant it was time to race. “Come on, Mom, I can beat you! I can beat you,” Jordan said to Lucy one time. Both very skilled skaters, they started to race, going around the bends at breakneck speeds, and then Jordan “pooped out.” Lucy flew by and was like, “Gotcha, gotcha!”

“Mom, you chumped me! You’re not supposed to let my friends see you beat me like that,” Jordan said.

“I was like, you challenged me. I’m just as competitive as you. I’m going to go after it!” recalled Lucy, laughing.

Most of the world knows Jordan Davis’ name but might not know that he was born and raised in Atlanta. He was a “miracle child,” born in 1995 to Delta airline employees Lucy and her husband Ron Davis, who didn’t think they would ever have kids because of a procedure that removed part of Lucy’s uterus.

After his parents divorced, Jordan Davis spent most of his childhood shuttling back and forth on free Delta flights between Atlanta and Jacksonville, where Ron lives. Jordan would eventually move in with his father for good a month before his 16th birthday. He had lived in Florida for only 18 months before he was shot and killed.

During the trial of Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot Jordan Davis while he sat in the backseat of an SUV with three friends in the parking lot of a Jacksonville gas station, Dunn’s lawyer Cory Strolla introduced Jordan Davis to the world as a thug. A gangster. According to Dunn’s defense, Jordan Davis threatened to kill Dunn after arguing with him about the loud rap music blaring from the teens’ automobile. It was publicized as the “Loud Music Trial.” What never really came out in the trial, however, was a sense of who, exactly, Jordan Davis was, to the people who knew him best, before he became a symbol.

Photos courtesy of Lucy McBath, Ron Davis, and Aaron Johnson

“Fuck that n****r! Turn it back up!”

These were the words Jordan Davis said to Michael Dunn during an argument over loud music in a Jacksonville gas station parking lot on Black Friday, Nov. 23, 2012.

Strolla repeated these words in his opening statement, loudly enunciating every syllable.

“The boys had menacing looks on their faces.”

“There was a barrel, a shotgun. I know when I see one.”

“I was in fear for my life.”

Dunn said in court he was “quivering like a leaf” as he reached into the glove compartment, pulled a 9mm handgun, cocked it back, and shouted, “You’re not going to talk to me that way!” before unloading the clip into the SUV that Jordan and his friends were in. Rather than call the police, Dunn drove off with his girlfriend to a bed-and-breakfast and ordered pizza.

One after another, the three boys in the car with Jordan that night — Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson, and Tommie Stornes — testified that Davis didn’t have a gun and police never found one during their investigation.

A year and a half before he was gunned down in Jacksonville, Jordan Davis was moved to Florida under protest. “He was mad at me,” Lucy said. “He would say, ‘I always want to live with you.’ He thought I was punishing him.”

Jordan was only 7 the first time Lucy was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she never discussed it with him, she just told him simply that Mom was sick. But at 15, Jordan knew what she was going through this time. He tried to be as strong as he could, but to Lucy, he appeared angry, possibly because he was afraid of what was going to happen to her. Lucy decided that Jordan should go live with Ron while she went through treatment.

Leaving Atlanta midway through his sophomore year was especially hard for Jordan because he had just gotten used to a new school, Marietta High School. After she had trouble getting him into one of the top elementary schools because of district rules, Lucy homeschooled Jordan from fourth until eighth grade. When it came time to enter high school, Lucy thought it was important that her son have a more social academic environment.

He worked hard to convince the kids at Marietta that he wasn’t the “weird, homeschool kid” according to his mom. He would always say, “I want everyone to know who I am. I want to be friends with everybody.” And now that he was friends with everybody (“the jocks and the skinny-jeans kids too,” according to Lucy), he had to up and leave Marietta for Jacksonville and another new school, Wolfson High.

“He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave us,” said Davis VanBuren, one of Jordan’s best friends at Marietta. “He had to go down there and take care of business. He told us he was going to come back every weekend.”

Jordan did go back to Atlanta a lot. As VanBuren recalled, he visited at least twice a month. “He would call me every time. Within, like, 20 minutes of him arriving at his house me and a few other friends would be over there.”

After he moved to Florida, Jordan didn’t talk to his mom or return her texts for a while. Then after four weeks, his attitude about Jacksonville changed — maybe it was because he fell in love with the beach, his dad said.

“We’d go to Jacksonville Beach and turn our backs in the water and compete to see who could stand up to the waves,” Ron said. “Sometimes the wave would hit us and knock us both over. That was the biggest laugh we had, that was that father-son laugh. That was it, when I think we laughed the hardest together.”

Despite the two living apart for the better part of 10 years, when Jordan moved in with his dad, they had a good relationship — thanks largely to their shared love for music and competing with each other. They spent time racing in their condo’s lap pool and playing Xbox. “Every , he would make sure that it had at least two players. If it was a one-player game, he didn’t want any part of it. He wanted to beat Dad,” Ron said.

Photos courtesy of Lucy McBath, Ron Davis, and Aaron Johnson

While it took some time for Jordan to forgive his mom and dad for moving him down to Florida, it took exactly one school day for Jordan to meet his best friend in Jacksonville.

Aaron Johnson was sitting with a group of guys in his last-period history class when he spotted Jordan Davis, sitting alone with his head down across the room. “We called him over and he immediately sat down and started making jokes,” Aaron recalls. “Within a few minutes it was like we knew Jordan forever.”

From them on, Jordan, the jokester, hung out with Aaron and his other friends outside the school in the morning before class. “As I got off the bus in the morning, and I’m walking up to him, you could already hear him telling a joke about me,” Aaron said.

Once they became friends, Jordan spent almost every weekend sleeping over at Aaron’s house. Aaron lived in a neighborhood with more kids, and his mom would let them hang out outside or stay up late playing video games until 3 a.m. Jordan would always want extra pillows, so Aaron had to tell him to bring his own. “I can still picture him getting out of his car with his two extra pillows,” Aaron said.

When they weren’t hanging out with the neighborhood kids, playing football, basketball, or manhunt, Aaron and Jordan would be at the mall, checking out the clothing stores and the girls. “[Jordan] was real into his clothes. He always wanted, like, mad clothes so he could talk to girls. He had a Louis Vuitton wallet,” Aaron said.

The night he died, Jordan was at the mall with Aaron just hours before. When they parted ways that night, they were planning to meet up at another mall. “It’s a small mall so you’ll see me,” were the last words Aaron said to Jordan. In Aaron’s mind he never really got to say a proper good-bye to his friend that night.

“Jordan was a mouthy kid, like any other teenager,” Aaron said. “But I definitely know Jordan wasn’t the type to have any weapon. When I heard [he had a weapon the night he got killed], I knew it was a lie.”

Cristina Ledford, Wolfson’s music teacher, remembers Jordan as a “mouthy” kid too. Mouthy and with a “big ol’ grin.” When Ledford met Jordan Davis she thought he was going to be a problem. On her first day at Wolfson, he skipped her class.

It was five minutes into Ledford’s last-period music appreciation class and Davis was pressing Ledford to let him go to the bathroom. She rebuffed him three times, telling him he had to wait for another student to return with the pass. She also wasn’t buying that it was an emergency as Davis insisted. “He had a big ol’ grin on his face,” Ledford said. She finished writing the class expectations on the board. When she turned around, Jordan Davis was gone. He didn’t come back for the entire class.

The next day, as the students for her music appreciation class walked down the hallway toward Ms. Ledford’s class, the only name she could remember was Jordan Davis. She asked him to see her in her office. She sat him down and pulled out a form that the administration had given her the day before to write Jordan up for skipping. Ledford asked Jordan what happened.

He explained to her that it was honestly an emergency and he spent the whole period in the bathroom. He apologized for leaving abruptly, but then burst out laughing as he explained that he was trying to avoid an embarrassing situation. He flashed that same grin, and Ledford put the form back into his desk, nearly in tears from fighting the urge to laugh herself.

Photos courtesy of Lucy McBath, Ron Davis, and Aaron Johnson

The first day back at school after Jordan died, Ledford remembers standing at the door outside her final period music appreciation class for about three minutes past the tardy bell.

“In the back of my head, I think I was waiting for Jordan to come around because I always saw him coming around the corner with his headphones in and his pants hanging a little low, and his hat on,” Ledford said. “His head bopping to the music and that big ol’ grin on his face.”

One of the girls in the class came and grabbed Ledford by the arm and said, “Ms. Ledford, he’s not coming.” When the door closed, the class just cried. Even the kids who had little behavior issues sat stunned. Some students were inconsolable and had to leave the room with guidance counselors.

“I had all of the kids do a memory card for Jordan’s parents,” Ledford said. Ledford collected more than 200 memory cards and gave them to Lucy McBath at Jordan Davis’ wake, along with a worksheet he had done really well on. “I said to her, ‘Ma’am, I’ve never had a parent-teacher conference in front of one of my students who is no longer living.'”

The memory cards led to Ledford’s decision to “retire” Jordan’s chair. She created a special cabinet filled with the covers of Rolling Stone and Jet about Jordan’s death, pictures of him, and the sign she had put on his chair so nobody would sit in all year. She had only known Jordan Davis for three months.

The week before he died, Jordan called his mom and asked her if she would not go to Chicago for Thanksgiving so that he could come back to Atlanta and see his friends. He pressed her change her plans; she pressed him to come to Chicago with her. They ended up agreeing that he would go back to Atlanta for Christmas.

On Thanksgiving, Jordan left his mom a voicemail: “Mom, I love ya, much love to you. I’m really happy today. I just want to say Happy Thanksgiving. Tell everyone I love them. Happy Turkey Day. Peace out.”

They talked later that night, Jordan telling her he’d had a good day, ate a lot, and he was happy he stayed in Jacksonville because he was going to get to hang out with some friends. It was the last time they spoke.

When Ron Davis asked his son to bless the table at dinner, Jordan would normally “back out or say something silly.” So at Thanksgiving in 2012, when he asked Jordan to say a prayer, he was astounded when Jordan offered a “well-thought-out prayer” according to his dad. “He prayed for a lot of people, a lot of family members; it was a sustained prayer, I couldn’t believe it.”

Ron Davis’ last conversation with his son would be brief. Ron was heading to work at the Hampton Inn. He’d retired from Delta and was working at the hotel to earn extra money to help Jordan get a car. Jordan said he was going to the mall to visit his girlfriend and asked if he could have a few bucks. Ron gave him some money and reminded him what time to be home. “Yeah, Dad,” Jordan said. “I’ll see you when you get home from work.”

Ron remembered their last moment together: “I hugged him. And he hugged me. And I always thank God that the last time I saw my son we hugged and we smiled at each other. So many people can’t say that.” A few hours later, he got the call at the Hampton Inn that Jordan had been shot.

In Atlanta, Davis VanBuren didn’t get the news about his friend’s death until the morning after it happened when a friend messaged him on Facebook: “Did you hear what happened to Jordan?”

On Nov. 23, 2012, VanBuren spoke with Jordan and they talked about plans for their birthdays. Davis VanBuren’s 18th birthday was Feb. 15, 2013. Jordan Davis’ 18th birthday would have been the next day.

The next morning when VanBuren got the Facebook message, the first thing he wrote back was: Jordan who? Still, Jordan Davis was the first person who popped into his head.

“I had to tell somebody so I called my parents,” VanBuren said. “Then I tried calling Jordan. Of course his phone was off. I didn’t really know what to do. I was in shock for a while.”

Photos courtesy of Lucy McBath, Ron Davis, and Aaron Johnson

On March 24, 2014, Michael Dunn was scheduled to be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. Even though the jury did not find Dunn guilty of Jordan’s death — the judge declared a mistrial on the first-degree murder charge after the jury said it was deadlocked — he was convicted of three other counts of attempted murder for the three other passengers in the car that night. Those charges alone carry a minimum of 20 years apiece. Dunn was also convicted of shooting into a vehicle, which carries a minimum three-year sentence. At 47, he’ll serve at least 63 years in jail and likely die in prison.

A retrial in the murder charge for Jordan’s death against Dunn is set to start May 5. The judge decided to delay sentencing until after Dunn is tried again for gunning down Jordan Davis. Prior to the decision to delay sentencing, Strolla reportedly quit Dunn’s case because his client is out of money.

The new trial and justice that Jordan Davis’ parents, family, friends, and teachers hope for will have less to do with whether a jury gets to know the real Jordan Davis this time, and more to do with whether or not they believe Michael Dunn was scared that night. Whether they believe that Dunn felt his life was being threatened and, under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, had a right to defend himself.

If the jury sees Michael Dunn as he sees himself, it may not matter if they see Jordan Davis as a mouthy teenager instead of a gangster. A jokester with a “big ol’ grin” instead of a thug.

Read more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikehayes/the-life-and-last-days-of-jordan-davis


Pizza shop owner fears loss of business over presidential bear hug

Scott Van Duzer, the Florida pizza shop owner who made journalists and celebrities swoon by lifting President Obama off the ground in a bear hug, said today that people were boycotting his business over the encounter, which happened just a day earlier.

Van Duzer told Politico on Monday, “People are saying a lot of bad things and boycotting my restaurant. There’s no middle line anymore, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with our country right now.”

If there is a coordinated effort to boycott Van Duzer’s business, it pales in comparison to the Left’s call for a boycott of Papa John’s Pizza after CEO John Schnatter said the chain would have to pass along the cost of Obamacare to customers. Opponents flooded Schnatter’s personal Twitter timeline with abuse, and lap dog CNN even fact-checked the price hike claim.

The key in the Pizza guy situation is that he "perceives" a boycott. But I haven't seen any evidence. Maybe it's just Obama's bad economy.

— BiasedGirl (@BiasedGirl) September 11, 2012

So, does the hug shown around the world really have conservatives upset?

I have made no calls to boycott that pizza guy, nor has anyone in my TL. Who exactly are you all yelling at?

— AliceH (@Alice_Aitch) September 11, 2012

I'm afraid this just doesn't meet any threshold for a boycott that I'd recognise. Everyone is free to do as they wish, naturally.

— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) September 11, 2012

https://twitter.com/Kev_Hans/status/245326267057045504

@red_red_head If the Pizza Dude just supports BHO, cool. If his parlor is a museum to a failed Presidency, I would boycott it.

— Randy Spangler (@RandySpangler) September 11, 2012

Don't boycott the pizza man!!! Just vote!

— BRAIN (@Ponderosa7) September 11, 2012

I'd boycott the pizza place if the pizza is shitty, but not because the owner is a moron.

— Justin (@theGrudgeRetort) September 11, 2012

Pizza dude, just to show you how fair I am, I'll boycott that biker gang too.

— #WarOnLeftists (@corrcomm) September 11, 2012

If Van Duzer’s pizza shop succumbs to the feared “hug-in” boycott, perhaps a Chick-fil-A franchise  — where politically motivated boycotts lead to record-setting revenues — would make for a good investment.

Update: In case you were thinking of having some Big Apple pizza to support small business, the Obama campaign itself has just released this “GIF of the day” which might make you lose your appetite. Still hungry?

GIF of the day: http://t.co/ZoUxXIFL

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 11, 2012

Read more: http://twitchy.com/2012/09/10/dont-boycott-me-bro-pizza-shop-owner-fears-loss-of-business-over-presidential-bear-hug/


John Legend Backs Out Of Party Over Ties To “Horrific Anti-Women And Anti-LGBT Policies”

Legend withdrew from an event to be held Thursday at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the sultan of Brunei, who imposed a Sharia code in 2014.

1. John Legend will not attend a Los Angeles Confidential party held in his honor at the Beverly Hills Hotel this week, The Hollywood Reporter reported.

Getty Images for MAC Presents Charley Gallay

2. The hotel is owned in part by the current sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who purchased the hotel in 1987 and transferred ownership to the Brunei Investment Agency four years later.

AFP / Getty Images AFP

3. In 2014, the sultan imposed Sharia law that calls for, among other punishments, the stoning of LGBT individuals. Consensual anal intercourse between an unmarried heterosexual couple is also punishable by stoning.

4. Cross-dressing individuals face hefty fines, imprisonment, or both.

5. “John Legend will not be attending the L.A. Confidential party at the Beverly Hills Hotel … in light of the horrific anti-women and anti-LGBT policies approved by the hotel’s owner,” Legend’s representative said to The Hollywood Reporter.


The spokeswoman, Amanda Silverman, continued, “These policies, which among other things could permit women and LGBT Bruneians to be stoned to death, are heinous and certainly don’t represent John’s values or the spirit of the event. John does not, in any way, wish to further enrich the Sultan while he continues to enforce these brutal laws.”

6. Following the adoption of Sharia law, a number of celebrities have boycotted the hotel, including Jay Leno, who attended a protest across the street from the hotel property.

AFP / Getty Images FREDERIC J. BROWN

7. On Feb. 3, the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT nonprofit organization, called for the L.A. Confidential to sever its ties with the hotel and relocate the event.

AFP / Getty Images AFP

“We feel strongly that those who support the rights of women and the LGBT community should take their business elsewhere,” HRC Global Press Secretary Kerry Brodie wrote.

8. “[Los Angeles Confidential] is an avid supporter of equal rights for all people,” publisher Alison Miller said in a public statement. “Our decision to hold our event at the hotel in no way suggests that we support any anti-human rights policies.”

No word on whether the event will still occur as planned tomorrow evening.

Read more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/moniquemelendez/john-legend-backs-out-of-party-over-a-hotels-ties-to-anti-lg


Hey, Reince Priebus, know what’s really ‘horrific’? Ask Jamiel Shaw’s family

Earlier today, Business Insider reported that RNC chairman Reince Priebus called Mitt Romney’s self-deportation remarks “racist” and “horrific.”

BI was forced to issue a correction after it became clear that Priebus didn’t use the word “racist”; He said Romney’s talk of self-deportation “hurts us.”

Priebus has not distanced himself from his claim that “self-deportation” is a “horrific” term.

Here’s what’s really horrific: 17-year-old California high school student Jamiel Shaw was gunned down by an illegal immigrant. The results of open borders and sanctuary cities are horrific. There are crimes committed by gang members who are in this country illegally that are horrific.

Words and ideas that make the RNC chair uncomfortable? Not horrific.


http://twitter.com/#!/DrewMTips/status/368415372019396608

Not from us, he doesn’t.

It’s also worth noting that the RNC press office confirmed the original Priebus quote when William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection reached out for comment.

So someone at the RNC thought “racist” was a spiffy term to describe “self-deportation.” And “horrific” is still just dandy.

Thanks again for the leadership, GOP.

Read more: http://twitchy.com/2013/08/16/hey-reince-priebus-know-whats-really-horrific-ask-jamiel-shaws-family/


It takes a village to school ‘persecuted’ village idiot Melissa Harris-Perry

On Sunday, Sarah Palin called out the ludicrous and creepy MSNBC spot by Melissa Harris-Perry. You see, Ms. Harris-Perry believes all your children belong to us.

Children are community property!

Palin called it “unflippingbelievable” and many others agreed. Collectivism? No thank you.

.@MHarrisPerry : Get real. When the govt “owns” kids REALLY bad things happen. http://t.co/GcGHUGBLbK

— John Stossel (@FBNStossel) April 8, 2013

Leave our children alone.

Ms. Harris-Perry apparently not only believes that your children aren’t your own, but neither are your thoughts. If you think independently and disagree with her, that must be persecution!

@MHPshow @chrislhayes @MHarrisPerry I don't think it's "hateful" to say that ad was poorly worded.

— Scott Burton (@scottburton) April 9, 2013

No, for real. She is claiming persecution. With bible verse.

Matthew 5:44.

— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) April 8, 2013

So, MHP thinks conservatives appalled at her advocacy of a collectivist child-rearing paradigm are persecuting her?! http://t.co/0W5jQjrMyL

— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) April 9, 2013

Christians in China are persecuted. Melissa Harris Perry is getting called out for saying something absurd.

— Brittany Cover (@bccover) April 9, 2013

Bingo. Actor Adam Baldwin responds to Ms. Harris-Perry.

https://twitter.com/adamsbaldwin/status/321687598944890880

https://twitter.com/adamsbaldwin/status/321686085799407616

https://twitter.com/adamsbaldwin/status/321683950667956224

And, that’s right. She doubled-down on her creepy collectivism. “Lean Forward”? More like “Lean Creepy” into collectivism. Again.

Allow me to double down. Kids are our collective responsibility. http://t.co/PxzjORME2u

— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) April 9, 2013

And if you are *still* tweeting me about the Lean Forward ad on public education, you can read my response here. http://t.co/PxzjORME2u

— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) April 9, 2013

Waah!  Her doubling-down is beyond pitiful:

My inbox began filling with hateful, personal attacks on Monday, apparently as a result of conservative reactions to a recent “Lean Forward” advertisement now airing on MSNBC, which you can view above. What I thought was an uncontroversial comment on my desire for Americans to see children as everyone’s responsibility has created a bit of a tempest in the right’s teapot. Allow me to double down.

Stop tweeting her! Leave Melissa alooooone.

Twitter users rightly give her the business and try to provide some Teachable Moments. It takes a village? Well, it does take a village to school the village idiot.

Sure. Means your doubly wrong. RT @MHarrisPerry: Allow me to double down. Kids are our collective responsibility. http://t.co/TUyJMNYjwa

— Shaun McDonnell (@McShauno) April 9, 2013

Send me a child support payment. RT @MHarrisPerry: Allow me to double down. Kids are our collective responsibility. http://t.co/o9EA9iqaRZ

— Ben Howe (@BenHowe) April 9, 2013

I have three kids I am going to need to send to college. You got that right @MHarrisPerry ?

— Lauren Coker (@MamaLC3) April 9, 2013

#LeanWeird RT RT @MHarrisPerry: Allow me to double down. Kids are our collective responsibility. http://t.co/o6VhCS64vI

— drew (@FigDrewton) April 9, 2013

@MHarrisPerry I'm going to have 12 just so I can make you take them all to a diner and enjoy the experience of collectively raising them.

— T. Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) April 9, 2013

https://twitter.com/FirstTeamTommy/status/321680793430786048

@MHarrisPerry No they are not… keep your hands off

— ledtear (@ledtear) April 9, 2013

https://twitter.com/RileyRebel129/status/321466663696478209

What about Psalm 139:13? http://t.co/gykef2agmJ RT @MHarrisPerry: Matthew 5:44.

— Matt Wolking (@MattWolking) April 9, 2013

Actor Nick Searcy weighs in with his usual awesome.

.@JeffShowalter like @mharrisperry , when advocating Marxism, use the word "pray." Makes people think U wont replace God with Gov't.

— Yes, Nick Searcy! (@yesnicksearcy) April 9, 2013

It's OK @halfadam you're better off. @mharrisperry Picked my son up from school yesterday and let him spend all his lunch money on Slurpees.

— Yes, Nick Searcy! (@yesnicksearcy) April 9, 2013

The lessons continue.

The best way to benefit society (or #TheCollective) is to let parents instill that sense of responsibility. IT'S NOT YOUR JOB @MHarrisPerry.

— Ben Howe (@BenHowe) April 9, 2013

The ppl influencing the lives of children are answering to their values @Mharrisperry. Something you learn from parents. Not a collective.

— Ben Howe (@BenHowe) April 9, 2013

@MHarrisPerry What you want for other people’s children doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t yours. That isn’t hateful, it’s factual.

— The Wren (@WWren) April 9, 2013

@BenHowe Intact families & good parents to their children = decentralized power, anathema to @mharrisperry & her Lefty pals.

— Joseph Dooley (@Mortal_Weight) April 9, 2013

.@tonykatz @mharrisperry let me get this straight. A woman's body is hers but my kids are not mine.

— Hair (@SHannitysHair) April 9, 2013

I guess if kids now belong to the collective, we can tell the 'my body, my choice!!1!' morons to pound sand. Right, @MHarrisPerry? #tcot #p2

— Kevin Eder (@keder) April 9, 2013

Huh. How about that?

And in a timely nutshell: Words of wisdom from the late Margaret Thatcher.

https://twitter.com/JasonBWhitman/status/321719066727436288

Amen.

Read more: http://twitchy.com/2013/04/09/it-takes-a-village-to-school-msnbcs-persecuted-village-idiot-melissa-harris-perry/


The Down And Dirty History Of TMZ

How a lawyer from the San Fernando Valley created a gossip empire and transformed himself into the most feared man in Hollywood, all by breaking a few long-held rules and, as rumor has it, lording over a notorious vault full of secrets.

For just $53, you can purchase a guaranteed front-of-the-bus seat on the TMZ NYC Tour. After stepping on the bus in the middle of Times Square, a TMZ-trained tour guide — handsome, blond, amiable Australian — will ask you and the rest of the bus if you’re a huge fan of the show. You’ll clap; the rest of the bus will roar in agreement. When a tanned, smiling face shows up on the television screen above your seat, you’ll be prompted to cheer for “our fearless leader, Harvey!” — and laugh when the guide promises to show you “all the places where celebrities party and bone and get diseases.” Here on the bus, you become one of TMZ’s people — the ones who’ve helped turned a gossip website into a $55 million yearly enterprise.

The TMZ tour gives the same experience of a generic Manhattan tour — the story of Times Square, which, in the guide’s words, “isn’t just home to 1,000 illegal immigrants working as Disney characters”; a quick turn through the Meatpacking District; a view of Central Park — only punctuated with landmarks of celebrity significance, introduced with TMZ’s trademark leering tone. While driving along Broadway: “Ladies, dry off your seats, James Franco’s on Broadway! And if you’re under 16 on Instagram, he’s probably tried to have sex with you!” While passing ABC studios: “Here’s the set of Good Morning America, where Chris Brown is known for his hits!”

Halfway through the three-hour tour, the bus stops in SoHo: To the left, there’s DASH, the Kardashian-branded store; to the right, you can backtrack to the loft where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a heroin overdose.

These two attractions perfectly encapsulate two of the modes of coverage at which TMZ excels: the frivolous and the macabre, Celebrity Banality News and Celebrity Death News. But there’s a third TMZ mode, one that neither the tour nor the TMZ syndicated program can truly translate. It’s this mode that distinguishes TMZ from all other celebrity news sites — what gives it teeth or, more precisely, bite. It’s not the TMZ-employed paparazzi trailing B-listers at the airport, photos of hot celebrities at the beach, or mugshots of celebrity stalkers.

TMZ’s real engine — what defines its mission, what legitimizes it and sets it apart — is a unique and controversial mix of scandal mongering and investigative journalism. But it’s also that mode that some have claimed is responsible for acquiring a video of Justin Bieber telling a racist joke and, over the course of four years, not publishing it.

BuzzFeed spoke to nearly two dozen former TMZ employees, and it’s clear that Bieber’s tape was not the only near-priceless piece of dirt in the proverbial TMZ vault. (TMZ did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) According to these ex-employees, the sealed testimonies from the Michael Jackson molestation trial hide there as does footage of various celebrities — Bieber, Lohan, Travolta — behaving badly. The vault isn’t a secret at TMZ — even the lowest on the staff ladder have heard whispers of its existence. As to what goes up on the site and what stays vaulted, that’s a finer, more esoteric calculus — and one in which celebrities and their publicists have come to live in fear. As one source explained, “There’s no doubt: [Harvey] Levin absolutely changed the way celebrities function today.”

TMZ has been responsible for breaking the biggest celebrity scandals of the last 10 years: effectively ending a 30-year career (Mel Gibson), tarnishing golf’s most sacred idol (Tiger Woods), and puncturing the pristine image of celebrity royalty (Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z). But it’s not just celebs: In 2009, it caught a bank spending millions of taxpayer bailout funds on a lavish party (Northern Trust), and, via spin-off TMZSports, instigated the $2 billion sale of an NBA team by applying the same surveillance to a racist owner (Donald Sterling) once reserved for the Hollywood stars and socialites.

Before TMZ, the gossip landscape was predominantly characterized by what those in the industry call “blow job news” — tidbits and sound bites that flatter the egos and images of celebrities. But TMZ disrupts that. It trades in scandal, and revels in exposing the narrative for what it is: a story as fictional as the films and television shows in which these stars appear. It didn’t just revise the accepted notion of what “Mel Gibson” means. It immolated it.

In the first five years of its existence, TMZ became the new standard not only for scandal mongering and gossip gathering, but multiplatform brand dominance. But its quest to become the “future of entertainment news” seems to have leveled out a bit. According to Quantcast, unique traffic has increased just 11% over a two-year period (24.48 million to 27.23 million; compare to usmagazine.com, whose unique traffic has increased 156%, from 12.8 million to 32.8 million) and Famous in 12, a TMZ-branded CW series, was canceled after five episodes this summer.

In 2007, though, TMZ did indeed look like the future. And even if that status is less certain today, TMZ has been the most influential and important media organization of the last decade. It’s not in good taste. It’s brazen, proud of its gaudiness. It’s altered the way that news about celebrity is treated, spread, and consumed — and earned its place in a lineage, spanning from Confidential magazine to the National Enquirer, that turns “celebrity gossip” into serious investigative journalism impossible to ignore.

But TMZ’s remarkable success and reputation have come at a price, as the demand to acquire and “own” scoops while simultaneously catering to a demographic of untraditional (read: straight male) gossip consumers has transformed a rag-tag group of reporters invested in illuminating Hollywood hypocrisy into a cabal of ruthless, click-hungry, and aggressive TMZers with little journalistic training and a tolerance of misogyny, both within the workplace and on the site and television show.

TMZ is both better and worse than you thought it was. In the words of a former staffer, “We built a brand that turned into a monster that can run on its own.” It’s a well-oiled, money-making, gossip-generating machine. But has it compromised the mission that set it apart from the rest of the gossip industry?

To answer that question, we have to look closely at the story of TMZ — its founding narrative, its breakthrough, and, most crucially, its founder — the man for whom the bus of TMZ acolytes cheered so emphatically. Because as anyone affiliated with the site will tell you, the story of TMZ is really the story of Harvey Levin.

FameFlynet (Travolta, Lohan), Handout / Reuters (Bieber)

Harvey Levin grew up, in the words of one former associate, as a “Jew nerd from Reseda, Calif.” — in proximity to the glamour of Hollywood, but definitively excluded from it. He was short, smart, and savvy, and spent his childhood observing his father, who owned a liquor store, attempting to avoid selling booze to kids with fake IDs, while the cops indiscriminately chose when to prosecute and when to look the other way. According to this confidant, this experience would motivate and structure Levin’s career, as he worked to expose the hypocrisy of those in power, whether they be the police, celebrities, or the various apparatuses that supported and sheltered them. He received a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara and a J.D. from University of Chicago, passing the California bar in 1975.

Levin taught law and briefly practiced it, but starting in 1982 began focusing on his media career: He had a legal radio talk show, a column in the Los Angeles Times, and law-related reporting gigs at KNBC and later KCBS, which is where he was working when the biggest celebrity scandal of the ‘90s broke: the O.J. Simpson trial. He was but one player in the larger industry that popped up around the trial and its aftermath, but he was skilled enough — and natural enough on camera — to win the role of host of the revival of The People’s Court. In 2002, he became the executive producer of Celebrity Justice, but the show only aired for three years.

In these pre-TMZ years of Levin’s life, the building blocks of the TMZ empire are all visible: the obsession with hypocrisy, the keen understanding of the law, the application to celebrity, the tireless ambition. Levin was intelligent, but more importantly, he was telegenic, with the smooth talk of the most practiced lawyer and the charisma of a television star. After Celebrity Justice was canceled, he began making regular appearances on CNN’s Showbiz Tonight, but, according to a confidant, he wanted something of his own — which is why he said yes when Jim Paratore, head of Time Warner-owned production company Telepictures, approached him with an offer.

Paratore had headed up Telepictures since 1992, putting in place a blockbuster slate of daytime syndicated programming (The Tyra Banks Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show) along with primetime mainstay The Bachelor. But one of Telepictures’ longest-running and most reliable shows was Extra, an entertainment news program developed in 1994 to provide synergistic promotion across the sprawling Time Warner media conglomerate. In 2005, Extra had already been on the air for more than a decade, amassing a trove of old footage of celebrities, all ready to be recycled and exploited on the cheap.

Which is exactly what Paratore would have Levin do. When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000, the idea was to use AOL’s internet muscle to exploit Time Warner’s media holdings. But the two companies had very different corporate climates, and struggled to foster the originally imagined cross-platform synergies. According to Jim Bankoff, then president of AOL (and current CEO of Vox Media), Bankoff hit it off with Paratore at a 2005 meeting between AOL and Warner Bros. executives designed to kindle increased collaboration. Paratore regaled him with stories of thousands of hours of unused Extra footage — the perfect candidate for an AOL collaboration. Neither Bankoff nor Paratore knew what, exactly, they wanted to do with that footage, save put it on AOL and establish a brand that was something other than “AOL Celebrity.” That vague, amorphous idea was enough to pique Levin’s interest.

Levin didn’t know anything about the internet and had no interest in cultivating a web presence. (Multiple sources confirm that even today, he still uses an AOL email address, and all tweets from his Twitter account are automatically generated.) But he’d have something approximating free reign — and the ability to mold the property into something to finally match his grand vision.

Plus, following the historic summer of 2005, gossip was percolating at an alarming rate. A cottage industry of blogs, almost entirely run by women and queer men wholly outside the industry, were exploiting that interest — most visibly Perez Hilton, but also D-Listed, Lainey Gossip, Pink Is the New Blog, Just Jared — all of which were proving, to the somewhat startled old guard of gossipmongers, that the future wasn’t in syndicated television or print, but online. Constantly updated, dynamic, with a strong authorial voice; snarky, immediate, and originating outside the carefully cultivated celebrity sphere.

These bloggers were defined by their outsider status — and their very lack of access — but that outsider status (and lack of capital) also proved problematic. Hilton, for example, was sued multiple times — more than once for copyright infringement. What these bloggers lacked was infrastructure and capital to expand and bolster their operations, all while keeping the same all-important outsider ethic.

Which is precisely what an operation housed at Telepictures, with the larger launching pad of AOL (which, in 2005, still boasted an amplifying power of 22 million subscribers), could achieve. Levin and Paratore brought along some staff from Celebrity Justice and Extra, including eventual TMZ personalities Mike Walters, whose father was an assistant sheriff in Orange County, and Evan Rosenblum. Rosenblum is son of former Warner Bros. television chief Bruce Rosenblum, and is also married to the daughter of People’s Court producer Stu Billett. The official staff eventually numbered a grand total of seven.

The site had a sketch of an overarching mission, but it still lacked a name — according to a former staffer, there’d been a discussion of “Crushed Candy,” but that was too girly. The name needed to be catchy, different, and, most importantly, short, so as to better facilitate views via the burgeoning mobile market. Someone pitched the idea to use “TMZ” — Hollywood shorthand for the “Thirty Mile Zone,” or “studio zone,” which historically delineated the boundaries for union-related rates within the industry and, in branding terms, connoted a mysterious sort of insider knowledge.

The only problem? The URL was already taken by an electronics company that went by the name of Team Minus Zero. According to a staffer from that time, Levin called the owner up and offered $5,000 for the URL — but without revealing who he was or what, exactly, the URL was for. The guy jumped at the offer, but Levin, according to a source, also knew that if he showed up with the cash in his Porsche, the URL owner would immediately up the asking price. His solution: Borrow a staff member’s totally average car. Hand over $5,000 in cash. The URL — and the brand — was theirs.

On Nov. 9, 2005, TMZ wasn’t even in beta, but it got its hands on something too big to wait for the official site launch: footage of the aftermath of a car crash involving Paris Hilton, her then-boyfriend Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos, Rod Stewart’s daughter Kimberly, and Laguna Beach star Talan Torriero. Evidence of celebutante Hilton behaving badly was at a premium, but this was something bigger: The video showed the Bentley, driven by Niarchos, crashing into a truck, leaving the site of the crash, nearly hitting a bystander, and later, once police had pulled the car over, Hilton blowing a kiss to the officers and saying, “We love the police.”

TMZ sent an email blast to the far corners of the American media, describing the video and noting, at message’s end, “There is no evidence on tape that the police ever conducted field sobriety tests on the driver.”

It was a splashy debut, bearing the hallmarks (video footage, celebrity shaming, prodding the Los Angeles Police Department) that would make TMZ famous — even if no one knew what TMZ meant. But it was a start.

When the beta version of the site went up in mid-November 2005, its identity was still unclear, packed with a scattershot mix of softball gossip (“Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey Officially Separating”), trade news from a full-time industry reporter (“Can ‘Potter’ Save Hollywood from the Poor House?”), and true pabulum (“Stars Share Their Favorite Thanksgiving Memories and Plans: They’re Famous and They’re Thankful”).

The aesthetics that would go on to define the site are visible even then, albeit in slightly altered form: At first, yellow was the contrast color of choice, and would gradually transition to red, white, and black. The scheme (like both The Smoking Gun and the Drudge Report) is the inverse of pastel-bathed Perez, D-Listed, and Just Jared, as well as the cover schemes of People and Us Weekly. From the start, TMZ was working to cater to a market that it’s cornered today: male consumers, many of whom wouldn’t even consider what they were reading “gossip.” Today, 42% of TMZ’s readership is male; compare that to usmagazine.com (15%) and people.com (11%).

In these ways, TMZ bore a resemblance to another ideologically disruptive publication: Confidential magazine, which, over the course of the 1950s, exploited and amplified the anxieties of an American society very much in transition. Confidential’s style not only affected the rest of the gossip industry, but also catalyzed a radical reconceptualization of stars and the industry that had, to that point, served as the primary source of the American fantasy world — a description that could readily be applied to TMZ as well.

Because of laws governing the sale of “obscenity” through the mail, you couldn’t get a subscription to Confidential — it was sold, along with the other lowbrow publications, at drug stores and cigarette stands. No reputable company would advertise in it. But by 1955, it broke the record for single-issue sales, selling 3.7 million copies of its January issue. Confidential succeeded because it offered something novel, dirty, and unspeakably sexy: the truth, or at least some rhapsodic version thereof.

Or so it promised, right under its title: “Tells the Facts and Names the Names.” It told the fact of Liberace’s homosexuality and named the name “Frank Sinatra” as the man who ate a breakfast of Wheaties in order to maintain his virility. A magazine like Confidential might have thrived during any decade, but the cultural climate of the ‘50s fostered a stream of anxiety-producing issues, including the Red Scare, the Kinsey reports, and increasingly fraught race relations. Dozens of publications were reporting on those topics, but Confidential pressed each hot button vis-à-vis Hollywood stars, politicians, and socialites. And it was able to — at least in the case of the most prominent and visible subjects — because of a significant change in the way that Hollywood managed its stars and their behavior.

The intricate history of the studio system’s production of stars is filled with manipulation, cover-ups, excised histories, and a gossip press willing to overlook it all as it behooves its own interests. In the 1920s, a series of star-related scandals threatened to expose the industry to government-imposed censorship; to avoid that fate, the studios and the press that covered them agreed to a symbiotic relationship in which one would provide a constant stream of material about the stars and advertising dollars in exchange for the implicit understanding that the magazines would not print anything that contradicted the studio line of stars as moral exemplars. If and when the stars did misbehave, each studio employed “fixers” to cover up the evidence (which included bribing cops, paying off mistresses, and arranging for abortions).

This symbiosis between the film and gossip industries was only possible because of the monopolizing control of the major studios, each of which operated as its own factory, acquiring the “raw” star material, signing them to long-term contracts, and controlling every facet of the production and management of their images, from their names to their dating lives. When and if the star acted out of bounds, he or she was completely beholden to the studio’s means of covering it up.

What happened in the 1950s, then, and what Confidential was able to exploit, was a disintegration of that system. The government-issued Paramount Decrees of 1948 forced the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains, effectively cutting off one of the major sources of income at the same time that the suburbs and television dramatically decreased the movie-going audience. The studios began to downsize, severely cutting the number of stars on contract.

Richard Harrison Jack Clarity/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Many quickly co-opted agents and press agents to perform the image and career maintenance previously performed by the studios, but the system of image management was in flux and primed for a magazine to come and exploit its vulnerability. Which is precisely what Confidential’s Editor-in-Chief Richard Harrison did, using call girls, bellhops, and a vast assortment of tipsters to obtain information, relying on signed affidavits, private investigators, and twisty, punning language to avoid charges of libel and obscenity.

Harrison used candid photos and amateurish decoupage tactics to suggest what couldn’t be said; he manipulated headlines and punctuation to achieve maximum titillation. The aesthetic was all primary colors — bold, in-your-face — the exact opposite of the genteel, appealing aesthetic of the fan magazines to which he offered such a clear alternative in style, tone, and purpose.

Confidential was effectively neutralized in 1957 after a series of (ultimately unsuccessful) libel trials that exhausted Harrison’s resources. But the damage was done: With the “truth” about the stars exposed, it was increasingly difficult for the fan magazines to continue to suggest them as paragons of morality. Thus: the “scandalization” of the traditional gossip press — evidenced in the increasing reliance on paparazzi photos — that echoed Confidential’s brash approach.

Which is all to say that TMZ has precedent and, more important, its tactics are nothing new. They’re accelerated for the digital age, but they’re operating on the same principle and profiting off the same impulse to excavate down to the deepest, “truest” level of the popular figures that surround us.

Harrison and Levin both developed a publication around their personalities and attempted to imprint their sensibilities as broadly as possible. Both were incredibly savvy about the law and the way to wield it in their favor; both relied heavily on the seemingly human impulse to trade secrets for money; both understood that secrets about race and sexuality, especially female sexuality, are the most effective ways to draw an audience.

And both, it seems, were not above leveraging the contents of their figurative vaults: Harrison had ample evidence of Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson’s homosexual activity and was primed to publish it — or, in the Confidential style, heavy insinuations thereof — but Hudson’s agent, Henry Willson, arranged a deal in which Hudson’s image would be salvaged in exchange for information about the illicit juvenile delinquent past of another of Wilson’s clients, Rory Calhoun.

From this vantage point, it seems like an unbalanced trade, but Harrison knew what else he’d purchased with the deal: continual leverage, not only with Hudson but any of Willson’s stable of young, virile, seemingly very hetero (yet often homosexual) stars. He didn’t want exclusives or interviews with those stars — that wasn’t Confidential’s game. He wanted tip-offs from them. A tit for a tat; a secret kept for a secret told. It was dubious moral algebra, but it was ruthlessly effective and presaged the way TMZ has maintained power.

It’s not that there’d be no TMZ without Confidential; rather, the landscape of contemporary publicity is a palimpsest of all the crises and cover-ups that have come before. After the tumult of the post-Confidential years, Hollywood responded with the sort of iron-tight, exacting image control typified by Pat Kingsley’s immaculate management of Tom Cruise’s career before he started jumping on Oprah’s couch. The stars were contained, they went wild, and then they were contained again — until, that is, the internet and digital technologies sprung leaks in the once air-tight system of image management.

All of which was beginning to percolate in 2005–2006, both on the various independent gossip blogs and the nascent form of TMZ, which was beginning, ever so gradually, to develop a voice. The key, however, wasn’t specific content, but tone and philosophy. It wasn’t what TMZ covered so much as what it didn’t cover: no weddings, no red carpets — nothing, in other words, that had been managed.

As Levin was fond of telling his staff, “We don’t do agenda” — and those who tried to do just that (cowing to a publicist, hobnobbing with a star) would be put on notice. According to a source, when TMZ ran a BeyoncĂ© story and Mathew Knowles called to get it taken down, it blew him off. When Knowles then called AOL, it also blew him off. And unlike other gossip organizations, whose content was predicated on future access to BeyoncĂ©, it could afford to do so. (According to multiple sources, the only coverage TMZ steered clear of was anyone, like Ellen DeGeneres, involved in Telepictures productions; other Time Warner properties were, however, fair game).

TMZ had the freedom of an independent operation, the savvy of decades of investigative reporting, the connections of more than 20 years in the Los Angeles court system, and the backing of a major conglomerate.

It was terrifying. The celebrities just didn’t know it yet.

ROBYN BECK/AFP / Getty Images

Because this was all before July 28, 2006, when Mel Gibson was pulled over in the early morning hours for driving under the influence. As former staffers recalled, at 11 a.m., TMZ received a tip concerning the arrest. No specifics; just, there’s something there. The official police statement was that he had been arrested “without incident.” Yet as Levin and his staff, which had grown to nearly 20, began to pursue the story, there were conflicting reports, and whispers of an anti-Semitic rant.

Gibson’s booking photo after being pulled over in the early morning hours for driving under the influence on July 28, 2006. Wireimage

The police insisted otherwise: As Levin told Broadcasting & Cable in 2012, the police told TMZ, “You will destroy your operation if you put that up on your website, because it’s false.” But the staff pushed and pushed, eventually confirming the existence of an arrest confirmation through a copy of the full police report. “We sold our souls to Warner’s legal to get it on the site,” recalls one staffer. By 9 p.m., the report, including vivid descriptions of Gibson’s belligerence, the use of the phrase “sugar tits,” and his claim that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” went live. (Four years later, RadarOnline ran damning audio of him seething about wanting “Jew blood on my hands” — essentially scooping TMZ on threats purportedly directed toward Levin and snuffing out a potential comeback.)

With the Hilton footage and Gibson arrest report as TMZ’s two most visible scoops, it’d be easy to assume that its primary objective was simply finding incriminating footage. But again, according to multiple sources, TMZ didn’t go after Gibson just because he drove drunk, or even necessarily because he was an anti-Semite. It was because the police attempted to cover it up. According to several of his staffers at the time, Levin was driven to tirelessly pursue these scoops by a desire to dismantle the unspoken but elaborate system that exempted the high-powered and beautiful of Hollywood from the rules to which the rest of the world were held. Levin had spent nearly 30 years observing the system — cops, judges, prosecutors, juries — allow the beautiful, wealthy, and powerful to misbehave, sometimes with total impunity. TMZ was his opportunity to right those wrongs.

It’s an admirable philosophy. And it does, in some ways more superficial than others, remain the guiding ethos of the TMZ operation today. But even constant digging doesn’t mean that you’ll find anything dirty — slightly dusty, maybe, but not the sort of pay dirt that revises the way society thinks about one of its idols. There were subsequent scoops, but the site had to run content all day, every day.

Over the course of the fall of 2006, reader preferences (measured via clicks) helped hone the pointy, aggressive tone that characterizes the site today. The more vanilla, People-esque coverage of celebrity goings-on began to disappear. In its place: exclamation marks, puns, and dirty jokes. If before, TMZ had adopted the flat, journalistic tone of The Smoking Gun, then, over the course of 2006, it adopted the tone of a tabloid — especially when covering its own exclusives. A sampling of headlines: From Oct. 3, “Screech Sex Tape Partners — Exposed!!!” From Nov. 9: “Borat Lawsuit — High Five!!!” From Dec. 19: “Brody’s Looking Grody!

That voice coalesced via multiple channels. Some of it was Levin’s — as a former overseer at AOL explained, he might not have understood exactly how the internet worked, but he absolutely understood how to write a headline. Headlines began to feature more puns, exclamation marks, and innuendo; content became incrementally harsher, meaner, crueler.

This shift had easily anticipated effects: First, several of those brought in to launch the site began to find the requisite compromise of their integrity increasingly troublesome. For one former employee, the last straw was when Levin demanded that a headline refer to a celebrity’s sister, who had a history as a sex worker, as a “whore.” Others, unaccustomed to Levin’s management style (described by one former employee as one of “constant screaming”) wearied of his constant antagonism and bullying. As the site grew, so too did the imperative to produce original scoop ideas. June 2009 brought the site its biggest scoop yet, breaking the news of Michael Jackson’s death, much to the horror of traditional news outlets.

Even before the TV show made the TMZ “morning meeting” famous, the staff would circle around Levin, standing at a white board, and go around the circle with their pitch/tip/idea for a story. Every employee was responsible for one; if someone took your idea before you did, you were screwed; after enough screwups, you were done.

In the early years of the site, the work day was punishing — staff was expected to be up and at a computer for East Coast hours (6 a.m. PT) and work well into the night; 14-hour days were the norm. The windows in the Los Angeles office were blacked out — “like working in a submarine,” according to one staffer — and during winter, a TMZer could easily go the entire day without seeing the sun. Low-level staffers were compelled to constantly hunt for leads, no matter how small, only to give it over and have someone else pen the story, with your investigative work wholly elided, a simple “TMZ Staff” affixed to the post. It was a highly alienating form of journalistic labor, and the turnover rate was high: Even a quick search of LinkedIn shows dozens of employees who stayed with TMZ for under a year; one source explained that dozens more would come for a one-week tryout and flame out immediately.

But Levin could afford turnover. Those who survived, thrived. And “preditors” (the industry term for producer-editors responsible for finding content) were easy to find and cheap to replace: They didn’t need journalistic training, they just needed wherewithal, ambition, and the ability to not take no for an answer. When they burned out, Levin would force them to hand over their source information, sometimes hounding them for weeks until they did. It wasn’t that this sort of schedule or leadership was a novelty in Hollywood, or even in journalism. But the combination of intraoffice competition and the shift to tabloid-style content gradually began to affect the office atmosphere — especially for women.

Chris Polk / FilmMagic

If the filler kept the site filled with content, then the “exclusives” were what made the name pop — and, month by month, offered more and more legitimation. Those scoops, however, required hard, tireless work: staking out courthouses, following up on every call on the tip line, keeping friendly with bellhops and cocktail waitresses and hairdressers, and maintaining a reputation as the place to send a tip anywhere outside of New York.

Some of the scoops just arrived: Mike Walters, who had been with the show from the start, loved Vegas and spent a lot of his free time there. According to one employee there at the time, it was through Vegas connections, specifically cocktail waitresses, that TMZ gained knowledge of Tiger Woods’ myriad affairs months before the car crash that catalyzed his image implosion. Tipsters could be inside the legal system, inside an airline, or inside the celebrity family (Jackson and Lohan in particular). Everyone was a potential source, ready to be groomed and, if necessary, paid.

“Checkbook journalism” — paying for scoops — is, at least according to traditional American journalism standards, unethical: The truth should never be paid to come forward. These critiques have been launched at tabloids for decades, but money remains the most reliable form of obtaining material about celebrities.

“I have no problem paying,” Levin told Broadcasting & Cable in 2013, “but we hardly do it at all. If someone calls and says, ‘I have gone through court files in a certain city and there’s a big lawsuit in which you’d be interested,’ I don’t mind paying them for their work. But we have to verify every story that we do.” But that defense, according to former employees, downplays just how willing TMZ is to throw money at promising documents. It’s a critique often leveraged by the media; Mediabistro has lambasted “the overall operation’s reliance on cash payments for big stories.”

In November 2006, for example, a source came forward with the recording of the Michael Richards racist comedy routine. The source wanted several thousand dollars for the tape, and TMZ would pay it, but the source wanted the cash immediately — as in before-the-banks-opened immediately. Levin couldn’t write a personal check and allow the money to be traced back to him, and he, like everyone else, had a limit on the amount of cash he could take out in a single day from the ATM. His solution, according to multiple staffers working for the site at the time: Call every TMZ staffer and force them to immediately take out their ATM max and bring it down to the TMZ offices. The staffers were reimbursed, but the story highlights just what lengths TMZ was willing to go to obtain — and pay — a source.

Indeed, several investigative reporters who cover the Los Angeles courthouse speculated that TMZ has dozens of government employees on its payroll. These claims lack substantiation, but several scoops — including access to the evidence photos of Rihanna’s beaten face or footage of rapper The Game in police holding, which one misguided staffer purportedly attempted to pay for with a Telepictures check — suggest that those within the system do regularly send tips to TMZ. Although Levin, for what it’s worth, has promised, “I won’t do stolen documents, I won’t do medical records.”

TMZ scoops linked to government employees, however, have led to multiple wide-scale internal investigations. In 2010, longtime Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini was very publicly fired amid rumors that he had been caught accepting regular bribes from TMZ that intensified when, in 2008, he hired former TMZer Vania Stuelp to serve as his deputy. Parachini contested his firing, but the optics, especially when Stuelp lost her job in a series of layoffs and returned to TMZ, were damningly suggestive, but never substantiated.

Chris Polk / FilmMagic

Levin’s claims concerning the intensive vetting and verification of scoops are, by most accounts, true. TMZ, with the sizable and highly suable bank of Time Warner behind it, simply cannot afford to be wrong. Which is why TMZ relies so heavily on assets: tangible proof that something did happen, that someone did behave this way. It’s not libel, after all, if it’s true.

According to sources, TMZ writers go back and forth with in-house counsel several times a day, exchanging a word here, extracting another one there, in order for a headline or post to pass the standard for libel and defamation set forth by the landmark Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan. And it’s worked: At the time of this writing, TMZ has never been successfully sued for libel or defamation. (Which is not to say its reporting has been infallible: The site retracted a 2012 story about Janet Jackson slapping Paris Jackson and claimed that Lil Wayne was being read last rites after an overdose last year.)

The reluctance to sue, however, is also linked to “The Streisand Effect” — a term used to describe the way in which attempts to cover up a secret ultimately end up publicizing it even more. Put differently, going to the police to stop TMZ from using a video, photo, or other piece of information becomes tantamount to publicizing that activity.

According to this logic, a celebrity would rather be in thrall to TMZ than have certain revelations of their private lives made public — a notion substantiated by Justin Bieber’s racist video. A look at TMZ’s extensive Justin Bieber archive reveals that on Jan. 24, 2011, the site published a year-old video of Bieber, taken at the approximately the same time as the racist joke video, phoning his mom to plead for permission to buy a helicopter. From that point forward, TMZ specialized in Bieber-related “exclusives”: on Feb. 6, an image of his Super Bowl cameo; on Feb. 21, Bieber phones into TMZ to talk about his much-anticipated haircut; on Feb. 22, TMZ publishes the first photos, heavily watermarked with the TMZ logo, of Bieber post-haircut. On May 13, exclusive details of his collaboration with President Obama to make a 9/11 orphan’s “dreams come true.” On July 11, exclusive video of Bieber and girlfriend Selena Gomez kissing during karaoke; on July 18, exclusive footage of them crashing a wedding; on Aug. 24, exclusive details of the “most romantic date ever” — a private dinner for two at Staples Center.

The list of exclusives extends for pages, suggesting a close collaboration between TMZ and Bieber’s management. According to TMZ, it chose not to post the video because Bieber “was 15” and “immediately told his friends what he did was stupid.” The statement does mesh with TMZ’s self-regulatory practices; as Harvey Levin put it in 2008, “Everybody has standards. That’s something that really matters to us and we deal with that every day. We turn down a lot of stories.” Maybe so. But as the trail of Bieber exclusives suggests, it might also get something in return.

TMZ also exploits a mostly untapped resource: the massive stream of court documents processed through the Los Angeles Court System. If you go to the ninth floor of the Los Angeles courthouse and know where to look, you’ll find the door to the “press room,” dingy, with an overpowering smell of old flop sweat, and stuffed with dilapidated vinyl couches, cheap office furniture, and ancient computers.

There’s a line of computers with various “Reserved for” signs tacked above, a room for the Associated Press, and another for TMZ, where a group of staffers scan every docket that passes through the court system. It’s through these staffers’ endless labor that TMZ is able to beat the rest of the industry to report who’s filed a restraining order, a name change, for divorce, or a suit against a star. This information isn’t hidden, and it’s not exclusive to TMZ — but the willingness to bankroll that labor ensures the branding status of “first.”

Owning the source — either by paying for it in the form of tips or paying the videographer who catches it — also sets TMZ apart from its competitors. Instead of relying on paparazzi — whom TMZ would have to pay on a sliding scale contingent on the quality/value of the material — with little, if any, sense of site loyalty, they hired their own paparazzi, some more professional than others. What mattered in the rough-and-tumble game of mid-2000s paparazzi, however, wasn’t skill so much as tenacity, which is why one of Levin’s hires purportedly came from the parking lot of a gas station, where he was hocking CDs with such persistence that Levin knew he’d make a perfect TMZ pap.

These paparazzi aren’t investigative reporters. Their only goal: Get celebrities on tape however you can without chasing them or breaking the law. They specialize not in photographs but video, no matter how unremarkable. In the early days, they’d set up shop at the hot clubs of the time (Pure, LAX) and simply wait for drunk celebrities to come out and engage them — which is exactly how TMZ nabbed the incendiary footage of oil and entertainment heir Brandon Davis calling Lindsay Lohan a “fire crotch.”

Back at the TMZ offices, an editor would be waiting to assemble the night’s footage into a sort of “greatest hits,” which would go up on the website in time for the East Coast sunrise. The “fire crotch” video was an anomaly — most footage was simply of celebrities walking, maybe stumbling, verbally (and not very cleverly) sparring with the videographer — but back in the mid- and even late 2000s, this sort of unmediated footage was a novelty. Granted, many readers, especially those relying on AOL dial-up, couldn’t even load it. But its existence punctured the celebrity myth not through the scandal of their words or actions, but the very banality of their existence. It was a quietly radical idea: Celebrities weren’t “just like us,” in fact, they were more clumsy, less intelligent, more boring.

The reliance on video also facilitated the development of TMZ on TV. Like Telepictures sibling Extra, TMZ was developed for syndication and, through an agreement with the Fox network of affiliates, pre-sold in an unprecedented 80% of American stations. Its first episode aired in September 2007; by month’s end, it had become the highest-rated new show in syndication, with a 1.7 household rating, second only to Entertainment Tonight in its genre. Today, TMZ is still second to ET — and regularly battles for the second place spot with Inside Edition — but remains, according to Broadcasting & Cable, dominant in the all-important 18–34 demo.

And it does it on the cheap, with production values that The Atlantic’s James Parker called “low-res, viral, shit-textured.” Each episode is composed of two overarching elements: paparazzi footage, which could be shot, edited, and added to the show right up to the last minute using TMZ’s cutting edge “instant production” and the now much-emulated morning meeting, in which the ever-expanding TMZ staff, seated casually at their desks, spar with Levin concerning potential stories.

In these meetings, Levin functions as a sort of hapless, middle-aged father figure who might not understand things like Google Glass, but knows the business better than anyone. And he’s been smart enough to surround himself with people whose vitality match and complement his own: Co-producer Charles Latibeaudiere, who came over from years at Extra to co-produce the show, is the voice of reason; Mike Walters and Dax Holt are the benevolent big brothers; the rotating carousel of young staffers are the whippersnappers fighting each other to say something clever enough to make the final cut. Even the lawyers get in on the mix, discussing which stories can be covered, how, and with what language. It’s all performative, of course, but the unmediated “reality” aesthetics make it seem like a window onto the “real” world of gossip production.

The main show may be the means through which most of America is exposed to the TMZ brand, but the site remains the central node for all of the properties, from the TMZ-branded tours of New York and Los Angeles to brand offshoots TMZ Sports, Dax Chat, and TMZLive. The TMZ team was the first entity to successfully transfer web content to television, illustrating a cross-media savvy and dexterity that has earned unreserved admiration within the industry. As New York Times media critic David Carr put it, “TMZ is one of the best written, best cast shows on television. There. I said it.”

Accounts of Levin suggest that he’s driven far less by a desire for personal fame and much more by a generalized, all-encompassing hunger: to be the best, to dominate the industry, to prove his naysayers wrong. He’s a man of extremes (in the ‘90s, he was overweight; today, he’s incredibly fit, doesn’t drink, sleeps four hours a night, and looks younger than his 63 years). Former employees describe him as a “mad genius,” “all fast-twitch muscle,” and “like he’s taking the blue pills in Bourne Identity.” And it’s that metabolism and bottomless hunger that’s manifested in the site: When people call it all-consuming, they’re both referring to its domination of its corner of the gossip landscape and the way it dominates the lives of its employees, including Levin himself.

Yet in the quest for domination, TMZ itself has become a source of gossip. Back in 2010, a blind item began circulating via Metafilter concerning an environment of pervasive sexual harassment at “a

Read more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/the-down-and-dirty-history-of-tmz


But Thats None Of My Business

But Thats None Of My Business

Read more: https://imgflip.com/i/b1qok


Desperately Seeking Relevancy: Madonna slams Boy Scouts at GLAAD awards

Aww! The Material Girl was searching for some sweet, sweet anti-Boy Scouts buzz during the GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) awards this weekend.

#GLAADForMadonna “@cedavi: “@lilialuciano: Room going wild for Madonna- rooting for #boyscouts equality twitter.com/lilialuciano/s…””

— Jay MDNA (@JasonMDNA) March 17, 2013

Retweet to thank #Madonna for challenging the @boyscouts on their shameful, discriminatory #LGBT ban at @glaad awards twitter.com/Clarknt67/stat…

— Scott Wooledge (@Clarknt67) March 17, 2013

#Madonna advocating for equality in the @boyscouts!!!Amazing! twitter.com/Theemuki/statu…

— David Duran (@Theemuki) March 17, 2013

Not everyone was as impressed.

‘I wanna join the boy scouts.. and I think they should change their stupid rules’ Thank you for your intelligent contribution, Madonna

— Jessica E (@_jegg) March 18, 2013

Madonna & DeGeneres can shut it. The Boy Scouts is more about helping boys become men & leaders not camping. That’s a method. #tgdn

— Richard Rivette (@VoteRivette) March 18, 2013

@mrliberty68 @fox411 It looks like Madonna is trying to bully the Boy Scouts!

— John Kramer (@mrliberty68) March 18, 2013

Hey #Madonna, if you don’t like what the boy scouts stand for, leave them alone and join another club. #liberty

— Joe Stone(@jdstone79) March 18, 2013

If I were the Boy Scouts I’d take note of the respect they’re being shown by ppl like Madonna and not change my policy.

— Moxie Mom (@moxiemom) March 18, 2013

That’s it! Gays must be allowed in The Boy Scouts! Madonna has donned a boys scout uniform..changed my mind instantly…

— Monica Anthony (@meanthony1) March 18, 2013

Madonna: you are a *straight woman* that wore a Boy Scouts uniform to urge them to allow gay members congrats on the irrelevancy

— miranda (@bleh) March 18, 2013

Madonna,a fine outstanding example of Morality speaks out against Boy Scouts.I must rush right out and follow her beliefs.Moron. #tcot

— Jeff Jones (@jjones0722) March 18, 2013

Madonna in a Boy Scouts uniform is a perfect example of liberals who dress the part – and that’s all.

— nikki (@eastendville) March 18, 2013

Slacktivism at its most pitiful.

Madonna gave Anderson Cooper a GLAAD award wearing a Boy Scouts uniform. For this she’ll get her “trying to stay relevant” badge.

— Jeff Snider (@OnAirWithJeff) March 18, 2013

Heh. Desperately seeking relevance. And failing.

Related:

Carly Rae Jepsen backs out of Boy Scouts concert, cites ‘battle for gay rights’

Priorities! Obama inserts himself in Boy Scouts business; Journalists mock questioning it

‘Nothing’s gayer than a Boy Scout uniform’; Celebs, others react to news of possible lift of gay Scout ban

Merck Foundation pulls funding from Boy Scouts due to sexual orientation policy

Not enough material, girl: Instagram threatens to close Madonna’s account over ‘community standards’

Immaterial Girl: Madonna tells concert-goers in La., Texas ‘vote for Obama’; Fans report boos, walk-outs

Madonna flaunts Obama tramp stamp again, waves toy guns in Denver

Gutsy call: Madonna endorses Obama via body paint

Madonna’s wardrobe malfunction: Christina Applegate says ‘What’s a little nip slip?’ Santorum calls it ‘sign of cultural decline’

Read more: http://twitchy.com/2013/03/18/desperately-seeking-relevancy-madonna-dons-boy-scout-uniform-slams-the-org-at-glaad-awards/