Gossip site beat rivals to the story

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The Independent Culture

The death of Michael Jackson may be the story that finally puts the raucous, irreverent celebrity website TMZ.com into the big league of credible news organisations. The three-year-old company has been described by its detractors as the National Enquirer of the internet, and it is more famous for serving up a diet of snatched photos and grainy footage of stars behaving badly – but it has broken a string of celebrity scoops, and the more august news agencies that ignored its declaration that the King of Pop was dead were yesterday conducting harried examinations of their mistake.

Wikipedia, which has prematurely called the deaths of numerous famous people, put a block on anyone updating its site until the story was confirmed by "old media", in the shape of The Los Angeles Times, more than an hour later. By that time, tens of millions of people had already heard the – accurate – news, as it spread on Twitter, and by email and text message, and websites reported a surge in traffic.

Founded in 2005 by AOL and Warner Bros, TMZ has been shaped by Harvey Levin, a former lawyer and TV show-business reporter with impeccable contacts in the entertainment industry and the Los Angeles police department. The site was where pictures of Rhianna's beaten face, audio of Christian Bale's on-set rant against a lighting engineer, and videophone footage of the Seinfeld star Michael Richards' racist abuse of a heckler all surfaced first.

The surge in internet use in the hours after news of Jackson's heart attack began circulating temporarily disabled numerous sites. Twitter had to suspend aspects of its service to cope with 5,000 tweets per minute at the peak. Google News was deluged with so many Michael Jackson search queries that the company thought it was coming under attack from a determined hacker's automated program. Many users were shown an error message that read: "Your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application."

TMZ, too, suffered sporadic outages after being deluged, as did Perez Hilton, the Hollywood blogger that frustrated users turned to in an attempt to find out what was going on. Hilton was yesterday defending himself from outrage over his initial take on the Jackson story, when he mused that it may be a hoax by the star himself so he could get out of the concert performances that he had already once delayed.

"Jacko pulled a similar stunt when he was getting ready for his big HBO special in '95 when he 'collapsed' at rehearsal!" Hilton wrote, in a post that he embarrassedly took down when Jackson's death was confirmed. "Either he's lying or making himself sick, but we're curious to see if he's able to go on!!!"