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Mel Gibson fuels online wars

David Perel’s celebrity news and gossip website, RadarOnline.com, was so overrun with Internet traffic Friday morning that it temporarily crashed.

“It was the longest 20 minutes of my life. The tech people were telling me not to pull my own Mel Gibson,” joked Perel, the site’s executive vice president. He was, of course, referring to Gibson’s angry language in a series of audio tapes released by Radar, in which the actor loudly berates his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva and spews racial slurs.

Fueled by Radar, the Gibson story has rocketed around the world. The actor’s longtime agency, William Morris Endeavor, dropped him, and Hollywood conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that his career is dead. (The Times has not independently verified that it is Gibson’s voice on the recordings, but his representatives have not denied it.)

But while Gibson’s future may appear dim, things are looking up for RadarOnline. The site, like many other pop culture chroniclers, tilts heavily toward paparazzi photos and coverage of figures from reality television. But of late, Radar has been breaking bigger stories — Perel cites the January report about Tiger Woods entering a rehabilitation facility as one of the website’s watershed moments.

Still, no story has raised the site’s profile like the Gibson saga, which effectively cemented Radar’s credibility in the world of celebrity gossip. Competitors such as TMZ, Perez Hilton and US Weekly have struggled to keep up as readers flock to RadarOnline. In June, Radar had 60 million page views and midway through July, the website is “basically at that figure already,” according to Perel.

“It has given us a brand-new audience,” said Perel. “It’s established credibility with some people who have never heard of us before. We’ve been getting big advertisers, and this solidified our position in the advertising community with the big brands.”

Plus, it’s the kind of news that’s hard for others to top.

“It’s a very difficult story at the minute, really, because the source Radar is getting their information from is not speaking to anybody else,” acknowledged Melanie Bromley, US Weekly’s West Coast bureau chief.

Just last week, US Weekly had a scoop of its own when it published a cover story declaring that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are set to wed. But Bromley, who conducted the interview, concedes that the rapid-fire pace of Internet publications such as Radar have made it “increasingly more difficult for weekly magazines to have real exclusives.”

“Not long ago, we’d get a story on a Friday and it’d always hold over the weekend,” she said. “Now it doesn’t.”

Hilton, the self-proclaimed “Gossip Gangsta” who boasts that his Web and mobile properties bring in a combined 300 million page views a month, insists the competition doesn’t have him trembling.

“I can’t compete with those big guys. I don’t have the resources,” he said plainly. “I’m just doing my own thing, and I get my own scoops, but it’s not, like, my No. 1 priority. At the end of the day, if I didn’t get an exclusive, I’m not beating myself up over it. But I can bet you anything Harvey Levin is throwing a gasket hourly over RadarOnline’s dominance.”

Levin, the creator and managing editor of TMZ, declined an interview request for this story, but his site has earned a reputation for breaking news about the legal troubles of Hollywood celebrities. In 2006, TMZ broke the story that Gibson had launched into an anti-Semitic tirade after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Malibu.

Perhaps ironically, however, some of TMZ’s competitors contend that the site has taken a pro-Gibson stance on the most recent news. When Radar posted the image of Grigorieva’s broken teeth, for example, TMZ fired back with a report attributed to “sources” familiar with the records of the dentist who treated the aspiring musician saying he saw “no evidence of a strike to the mouth.”

“As an observer of pop culture and the media, it’s pretty transparent to me that Oksana is directly communicating with Radar herself, even though she’s denying it. It’s 99% her camp,” said Hilton. “And Mel Gibson’s camp is using TMZ to their advantage and trying to perpetuate their side of the coverage. Each outlet’s coverage is slanted.”

Hilton speculates that Grigorieva was paid at least $500,000 by Radar for her story. Perel denies any money changed hands, attributing the scoop to weeks of enterprising reporting by his staff.

Perel shrugs off comparisons with TMZ. “I think TMZ sees us as competition. We don’t look at them as competition,” he maintained. “We are not reactive to what they do. They’re more into advocacy journalism — they’re saying the tapes are phony, but it’s absurd. I got e-mails from people sending me TMZ’s articles literally with the words ‘How pathetic.’”

Meanwhile, other outlets, such as former US Weekly and Star magazine editor Bonnie Fuller’s HollywoodLife.com, are trying to put their own stamp on the Gibson story. Fuller’s website, which launched last November and targets women ages 18 to 35, prominently features its editor in chief’s own take on Gibson. In one column, she opined about the possible end to Gibson’s career; in another, she asked why women’s groups weren’t more outraged about the alleged battery.

“I think our audience really likes to hear our take on the news. They like somebody to analyze the situation and are looking for a take or an opinion,” said Fuller, who hopes to further the fledgling website’s credibility by appearing as a celebrity expert on talk shows such as “The Today Show.” Last week alone, she was on more than a dozen television and radio programs.

Still, Fuller said, it can be hard to get noticed in the current celebrity news landscape.

“We break stories and sometimes they just don’t get picked up. We’re the new kid on the block,” she said. “Part of it is you have to be around for a while. You have to prove yourself. So the ... more stories we break ... the more we’ll be recognized.”

RadarOnline launched a little more than a year ago. In 2003, the brand started as a quippy print magazine covering everything from entertainment to politics but was forced to fold its print operation five years later. Owner American Media relaunched Radar as an online, more celebrity-driven entity in April 2009, under the direction of former National Enquirer editor Perel.

Certainly, one good story does not always legitimize a news outlet, said Donald Zachary, a lawyer who formerly represented TMZ.

“The question for Radar will be whether they can follow up and produce credible stories in the future,” said Zachary, who also teaches media law at USC. “Breaking a big story separates you from all the people talking about Lindsay Lohan going to jail. Everybody’s got that story. You need the ability to be consistent and turn out important news that’s different from what other people are saying.”

But at least for the moment, Radar’s Perel feels optimistic.

“It’s particularly gratifying to watch the site go from last year, where it was nascent, to this year, where it’s through-the-roof-amazing,” he said. “The tape where Mel goes on that racist rant — to bring something forward like that, it really shows people something that is relevant. It was so vile, and it was so disgusting and so racist, and it shows that race is still a contentious topic in this country. I think that is one of the greatest things you can do as a news organization.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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