When a video of pop star Justin Bieber making racist jokes was published last week by British tabloid The Sun, it was hard to tell who lost more: Bieber, or TMZ, which purchased the video years ago and has used it to extort appearances and call-ins from Bieber ever since.
That TMZ had the video for years isn't a secret. In its post on Sunday the gossip site acknowledged that it had possession of the video "4 years ago," (the video was likely made in August 2010, while Bieber was filming the documentary Never Say Never) but "decided not to post it ... in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid."
But according to multiple sources with knowledge of TMZ's editorial operations, there was another, more pressing reason to keep the video secret: to hold it over Bieber and his team's heads in exchange for appearances on TMZ's media properties and cooperation with stories.
"TMZ has been sitting on this video for 3+ years," one source, who worked with TMZ at the time the video came into the publication's hands, told us, "and have been using it as essentially ransom so that Bieber and his team would cooperate with them and give them scoops. It was very close to being released initially, but his team was able to convince them not to by giving them access and compliance." A TMZ spokesperson denied that the company agreed to suppress the tape in exchange for access, calling the allegation "absolutely not true."
But we're told that the day after the site reached an agreement with Bieber's team, Bieber appeared in a TMZ Live in the Studio bit. Bieber, though not as big as he is now, was an incongruous guest for a show that tended to feature low-level reality stars. The then-16-year-old explained away his appearance saying he decided to stop by after running into "my boy Harvey" at a sushi restaurant nearby.
The final arrangement—the exact terms of which we don't know—came down to Harvey, Bieber, and manager Scooter Braun. "Usher, who was Justin's mentor, found out about it and was less than pleased, as you can imagine," the source said. (TMZ reported yesterday that upon learning about Bieber's use of slurs, Usher "took [Bieber] into a room and showed him historically racist videos to drive home how hurtful these words can be.")
A second video, of Bieber singing, "There'll be one less lonely nigger, if I kill you, I'll be part of the KKK," was published yesterday on TMZ, and the site reported that "various people" had "tried to extort him" over it:
Bieber and his team say various people have tried to extort him over the last few years — demanding money for both this video and the one he made when he was 15. Justin says he will not be shaken down anymore. He says he wants people to see the video and he wants to accept responsibility.
According to TMZ, someone who worked on one of Bieber's video projects stole the footage and two months ago offered to sell it back to Bieber's team for $1 million. The demand dropped down to $500,000 but the negotiations fell apart when Bieber's team decided the footage, now visibly dated, wasn't worth suppressing anymore.
Today, Page Six reports the existence of more videos—taken from the same stock of footage shot for Never Say Never—of Bieber cracking racist jokes and using slurs.