In the court of public opinion
Harvey Levin, JD’75, purveyor of celebrity news at TMZ, wrestles with issues of journalistic ethics and privacy.
The first issue of People magazine hit newsstands March 4, 1974, with Mia Farrow as The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan on its cover. University of Chicago Law School student Harvey Levin was immediately hooked. He would race his roommate to finish new issues on the train from Hyde Park to their downtown apartment. “After reading cases and all that, it was just like crack,” Levin, JD’75, says. “It was my cocaine and I just got addicted”—a gateway drug, as it turned out, from the law and academia to a career in the hothouse of Hollywood gossip. Now he’s racing—and often beating—the competition in posting celebrity news online. Levin’s website, TMZ, churns paparazzi photos and anonymous tips into 25 to 40 posts a day covering the public gaffes, police run-ins, romances, and rehab stints of stars, from teen idol Justin Bieber to Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence. Named for the “thirty-mile zone” around LA that determines pay rates on union film projects (outside the zone, or “on location,” rates go up), the site draws millions of hits each month. TMZ also airs a TV show six days a week, where Levin wisecracks over the day’s developments with his reporters and producers. Producing TMZ is the latest in a string of career changes—law professor, TV personality, journalist, now media mogul—that Levin, 62, credits with keeping him young. “What I feel I’ve done right is I’ve challenged myself in trying new things,” he says. Today Levin is smiling, slumped on a couch in TMZ’s offices in West Los Angeles. Dressed in blue from watch to polo to rubber sneakers, the wry, exuberant interviewer familiar to People’s Court viewers is friendly and accommodating in person. He says he rises at 2:30 a.m. most days, and on this late afternoon he looks tired after typing up a just-verified story. On his desk is a University of Chicago Law School tote bag that he carries every day: “Everybody in my office calls it a purse, and it’s not a purse.” Levin remembers law school fondly as “three years where people tried to set traps for me.” Learning to navigate and anticipate lines of legal questioning in class gave him critical thinking skills that he still uses every day. “I think I use my Law School education more not practicing law than I did practicing law,” he says. But “I was an enigma at that school, I really was.” In his third year he flew to Los Angeles to appear on the game show High Rollers to try to win a boat to take to Florida—he had accepted a job after graduation from his former UChicago professor, University of Miami Law School dean Soia Mentschikoff. Losing to a housewife from Van Nuys, California, he arrived in Miami boatless, but his pop culture habit came with him. “At the time, Harvey probably was the only law professor in America to have the then-new People magazine delivered to his office,” says Jay Feinman, JD’75, his colleague at Miami and now a professor at Rutgers University. In 1977, Levin left Miami for his native Los Angeles and joined the Whittier College of Law (now Whittier Law School) in Orange County as assistant professor of law. He taught classes including Professional Responsibility and Real Property. The next year, some Californians were campaigning to limit property tax increases in the state constitution. Levin’s dean at Whittier led the line against the amendment but needed someone who didn’t stand to benefit from the low taxes to debate popular antitax crusader Howard Jarvis. “He was debating people who were against his proposition and killing everybody because they all had vested interests.” Then 27, Levin didn’t own much of anything, so the dean threw him in the ring. “It became a thing,” Levin says. “I debated him all over the state. We would do five-hour radio marathons.” Jarvis’s side eventually won, and Proposition 13 remains an enduring and controversial feature of California law. But Levin’s feisty performances earned him a talk radio show, on which he was known as Doctor Law. A legal column for the Los Angeles Times soon followed. Levin’s radio show caught the ear of John Rhinehart, a line producer for The People’s Court, the now-iconic daytime TV show that replicates small-claims court as fervid drama. On Rhinehart’s recommendation—for being funny and knowing the law—the producers added Levin to their team as a behind-the-scenes legal consultant. (Today he’s the host and a legal reporter on the show’s second incarnation, getting reactions to the cases from people on the street.) While at the show, Levin began working as a reporter at Los Angeles’s KCBS-TV. He covered the O. J. Simpson murder trial there, and his work on credit card fraud, outpatient care, and workers’ compensation fraud earned him Emmys for investigative reporting. TMZ was launched in 2005 after Levin’s syndicated show about stars’ legal issues, Celebrity Justice, stalled out. The show’s producer came to him with an idea for a website. “I said I could not be less interested.” But later he realized a digital news operation would free reporters from the strictures of TV scheduling, which could stall a breaking story until after another outlet got the scoop. “If we can create a news operation around the website, we can beat everybody,” Levin says. “That was a simple premise and it worked.” One of TMZ’s first big stories reported Mel Gibson’s July 2006 arrest for driving under the influence and his subsequent anti-Semitic rant to a police officer. The story was posted the night of the arrest, followed by pages from the arrest report two hours later. Just about every news outlet wanted a piece of the action; TMZ had arrived. The site’s celebrity-baiting stories have earned it a degree of infamy. But at Levin’s insistence, what gets reported is subject to intense debate among the staff. Standards vary in the gossip business, but Levin is intent on taking an ethical approach. “I don’t live by hard-and-fast rules in this job,” he told UChicago Law School students at a 2010 talk on privacy and the media. “I can’t give you a rigid principle on where the line of privacy is, and I struggle with it all the time.” TMZ cameramen sign contracts stipulating that they will not chase or incite people, trespass, or otherwise break the law in pursuit of a story, Levin said in the talk, “and we’ve fired people who violate that.” Even public records can be off limits. A “shocking document” in a court case involving Britney Spears, for example, revealed embarrassing personal information about the singer’s parenting. There was no gray area about TMZ’s right to publish it—the court clerk included it in a public filing—and no question about public interest. But Levin sensed the filing was a mistake; the nature of the information told him the file should have been sealed. He was right. Levin called Spears’s attorney, who was mortified at the blunder, and the court withdrew the filing before anybody but TMZ had it. “The only copy that was out there was ours,” Levin told his student audience, “and I ripped it up.” Levin knows that some think TMZ has taken the notion of “parasocial experience”—one-way relationships like those between celebrities and their fans—to an extreme. “People are now obsessed with other people’s lives in a really unhealthy way,” he says, summing up the criticism. To him, websites like TMZ are just the natural next step of mass media amplifying a rumor mill that has always existed in one form or another. “Journalists kind of became the town gossips,” Levin said in his talk at the Law School. “They may be reporting important things or frivolous things, but long before the Internet came along, journalism became part of the parasocial experience. … The extension of that is TMZ.”