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ON THE MEDIA

Harvey Levin stands for a principle

'Beach Bums' and Mini-Me's sex tape notwithstanding, the man behind TMZ is a champion of the 1st Amendment.

October 23, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

My 1st Amendment hero brings close-up photos of celebrity rear ends to the world, under the witty, witty headline "Beach Bums." My 1st Amendment hero delivers us the news any time someone famous looks fat, drunk or plain gaga.

My 1st Amendment hero posts Mini-Me's sex tape and treats the Kardashians as if they were America's first family. And my hero also lands real scoops that the rest of the media, including this newspaper, would love to have.

Yes, Harvey Levin is my 1st Amendment hero, and I'm not (that) embarrassed to admit it.

The man who stirs the putrid caldron of banal, soul-sucking celebrity infotainment -- epitomized by his TMZ website and TV show -- also works harder than just about anyone else in media and delivers a measure of what even traditional outlets must concede is real news.

Levin has earned his outrage in recent days over the revelation that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (perhaps with the aid of the district attorney's office) and a Superior Court judge think it's a good idea to snoop around in a journalist's phone records.

The multiple arms of the law went after Levin's phone logs in the apparent belief that it's more important to expose the individual who leaked the embarrassing news of Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant than to attend to messy technicalities like the independence of the press.

I suspect many media outlets have ignored this story because they can't reconcile the idea that a website appealing to our lower instincts can also defend our higher principles.

The contretemps coming to the fore in recent days began three years ago with the arrest in Malibu of Mel "Braveheart" Gibson. His simple DUI beef would have been relatively small potatoes if someone hadn't told Levin that the actor also insulted the Jewish sheriff's deputy who made the arrest.

Most significant, Levin uncovered what appeared to be an instance of celebrity justice -- sheriff's supervisors keeping the actor's ugly behavior quiet and even ordering the arresting deputy to keep Mad Mel's rantings out of the public arrest report.

The captain who oversaw the original investigation told me Thursday that he wanted Gibson's tirade confined to a "supplemental" report in an attempt to avoid the sort of public outrage that might taint a jury pool that could have heard the case of driving under the influence.

We'll never know for sure about law enforcement's private motivations, but let's just say I'm skeptical.

Sheriff Lee Baca's department -- apparently students of the Shoot-the-Messenger School of Management -- instead spent the last three years trying to find out who revealed the full scope of Gibson's bad behavior.

My colleagues Jack Leonard and Richard Winton reported last week that the D.A.'s office had concluded over the summer that it could not prove who leaked the information.

A summary of the case findings also revealed, for the first time, that investigators had looked at phone records of TMZ's Levin, as well as those of Deputy James Mee, who made the arrest.

When I called Baca to ask him Thursday about his department's foul-up, he said he didn't know much about the matter. That became clear when he insisted, incorrectly, that only Deputy Mee's phone logs, not the newsman's, had been searched.

I set him straight on that point, but he insisted, nonetheless, that the whole thing was "much ado about nothing," because his department had never intended to target Levin or his website, which draws as many as 10 million unique visitors a month.

"This is a story of the media, by the media and for the media," Baca said. "There is no harm to Harvey Levin, and if there is any intent by anyone in the organization I run to harm a reporter, they are going to have to answer to me."

But the sheriff said something else that I think calls into question how his department handled the Gibson affair from the very start.

"Drunks do a lot of things when they are drunk," Baca said. "Mel Gibson made some anti-Semitic comments and, in that regard, further verified that he was drunk."

Exactly. And that's doubtless why Deputy Mee included those facts in his original report, the one a captain ordered kept out of public view and put in a supplemental report.

The captain and other sheriff's officials insist Gibson's ugly-speak eventually would have been taken to the D.A.'s office, even without Levin's expose.

Maybe. But it seems to me that, without the public exposure, the makings of a coverup were all in place.

The actor previously had a cozy relationship with the Sheriff's Department, serving as a "celebrity representative" on a group that supports the children of slain deputies and even dressing in a sheriff's uniform to film public service announcements.

Baca's department gets, at best, a fig leaf of cover by arguing that the D.A.'s office gave advice on the warrants (something that office has denied) and that the warrants were issued by a judge, Deborah Andrews of the L.A. County Superior Court.

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