How does a University of Chicago law school graduate go on to become the founder of TMZ, the gossip website adored by some and reviled by celebrity lawyers?
Two weeks ago, Harvey Levin returned to the University of Chicago law school to give a talk before a classroom of students and explain himself. The presentation was pretty eye-opening, with Levin defending his endeavors and giving his views about celebrity privacy. During the speech, he revealed that TMZ turned down the Brett Favre penis pictures and attempted to explain why it's wrong to publish a picture of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps with his bong but it's ok to cover Mel Gibson's personal troubles ad nausea.
Introducing himself, Levin told the classroom that it's "the most improbable thing in the world that i'm standing here."
Then, Levin spoke about modern journalism and maade a pretty strange allegory:
"A lot of people think my god, TMZ is doing this thing now where they've created these radical parasocial experiences and people are now obsessed with other people's lives in a really unhealthy way. Yet, when you think about it, parasocial experiences have existed for hundreds of years. Two hundred years ago, before there was TV and radio and the Internet, there was a town drunk, and a town whore, and everybody in the town didn't necessary know who they are or know them, but they knew of them, and they became the shared experience, the shared form of communication, so people could talk about them...I suppose you can say it was gossip. When you fast forward a 100 years to television and radio and the Internet, it's really the same thing."
The TMZ founder talked about his website, which he believes busted the paradigm of a Hollywood run on publicist lies.
Levin subsequently makes a startling confession. "Are there zones of privacy for these celebrities?" he asks. "I absolutely believe there are zones of privacy."
Levin says he encourages debate about the limits of celebrity intrusion in his newsroom. He adds that he thinks back to his days, studying constitutional law, and remembers U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's maxim about pornography: "I know it when I see it."
To prove that he has standards about privacy, if not hard and fast rules, he gives some examples of things that TMZ has declined to run. They include:
- A pretty shocking legal document involving Britney Spears and her children. Levin says that, in general, legal documents are "fair game," but there's always exceptions, such as a document in a case involving Spears that he knew should have been sealed. Levin says he called up the celebrity's attorney, who panicked. Later, he agreed to rip up the only remaining public document about this incident, which he says would have been "huge news."
- The Brett Favre penis picture. Levin says that TMZ was offered this two weeks before Gawker snapped it up. He says he didn't do it because it "felt like bedroom police." On the other hand, he notes that TMZ went ga-ga over Tiger Woods coverage because, in his view, it started out as a cover-up whereas the Favre photo was a form of legalized extortion. (Then again, after the photo came out, the gossip site certainly ran with the story.)
- A photo of Michael Phelps smoking from a bong. Levin says that TMZ had the photo three months before it came to light and it was posted in the newsroom, but not published. It didn't feel right, says Levin. He can't say the same about material that TMZ has gotten in regards to Mel Gibson. The difference is what Levin calls the "yuk factor."
Here's the full audio of Levin speaking to a classroom of law students, who also get the opportunity to interrogate him.