TMZ's Troubleshooter
California Lawyer

TMZ's Troubleshooter

Celebrity gossip and rumors fuel TMZ's websites, but the First Amendment, fair use, and in-house counsel Jason Beckerman ensure that the company rarely gets sued

December 2013


Photo by Brian Moreno

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FROM HIS COMPACT OFFICE overlooking the TMZ newsroom, Jason Beckerman is sifting through the 14 or so story scripts that will comprise today's half-hour (minus commercials) TMZ on TV program, looking for potential legal blowback. TMZ's reporters and producers work in a sprawling industrial space studded with wood beams, floodlights, catwalks, numerous suspended closed-circuit monitors, exposed wiring, and a ladder leading to nowhere. Several semicircular workstations house six computer monitors each, and a roving headsetted correspondent is trailed by a cameraman. Suddenly, a great hubbub erupts.

Within 30 seconds Beckerman has joined the commotion's epicenter, where, as always, Harvey Levin - the peripatetic visionary, cofounder, and face of TMZ - is holding court. This September day a breaking story has pulled Levin off-camera midway through the TMZ Live broadcast he hosts: Tom Hanks, the A-list movie star, had been serving on a criminal jury that was just dismissed for tampering because someone from the city attorney's office approached the actor during a break and gushed that he was a big fan. (Or, as executive producer Charles Latibeaudiere more colorfully expressed it, "Basically, someone in the prosecutor's office was busted for being a star-fucker.") Levin could barely contain himself, growling to no one in particular, "This is a great story."

Beckerman, acting as a sounding board, confirms that counsel communicating with a juror is grounds for a mistrial, and heads back to his office.

"I could tell something was going on," he says of the initial clamor.

Making sure that "something" is ready for prime time - or the numerous and growing array of outlets where TMZ stories appear - is a vital part of what Beckerman does as head of business and legal affairs.

Young-looking at 42, he appears easygoing and affable. For an attorney, his dress is casual - a tie-less blue dress shirt, jeans, and loafers - but still more formal by a factor of ten than the newsroom reporters' - mostly in their twenties and clad in shorts, T-shirts, backward baseball caps, and sandals.

"When I started here [in 2009], my immediate boss at Warner Bros. told me to dress like a lawyer," Beckerman recalls. A few days later TMZ executive producer Evan Rosenblum pointed to Beckerman's suit and advised, "You need to not dress like that." These days, the attorney says, "I have to dress more conservatively than the reporters, but I need credibility. I also can't be 'dad,' because they have to trust me."

Within half an hour, the Hanks story, which was immediately inserted into TMZ Live, shows up on the electronic Chartbeat Big Board suspended from the newsroom rafters like an old Dow Jones stock ticker. "Hanks" is sandwiched between "Ashton and Demi - Together!" which is accompanied by a downward red arrow illustrating its trend among TMZ viewers, and "Gwyneth Paltrow - A-hole Driver of the Year," whose upward arrow is green. (Paltrow was caught on video on a motorbike with her nine-year-old daughter in tow, pulling out of a parking spot about a foot in front of a traveling school bus.) Double threat Lamar Odom - the former Los Angeles Clippers basketball player who's also married to a Kardashian - stubbornly clings to the top two slots: He's denying he's a crack addict, and new details have emerged about his latest marital imbroglio. Other stories rounding out the top ten include two people from the reality show Swamp People being arrested for attacking a man, and the latest shenanigans involving hip-hop star Kanye West, former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, and Kendall Jenner (daughter of Bruce and Kris).

Much of the footage TMZ runs is garnered at trendy restaurants or other haunts where paparazzi are known to lurk. "Celebrities hunt us out," says Beckerman, noting that's not so of the true A-listers.

"Brad and Angelina don't want anything to do with us," he admits. "Wouldn't seek us out in a million years." By contrast Dennis Rodman, who has just returned from one of his forays to North Korea, is "always available for the cameras."

TMZ IS A FLATLINE UNIVERSE WHERE CELEBRITY is bestowed equally upon movie stars, professional athletes, and politicians, and where "famous for being famous" is not a pejorative. When George Zimmerman - who is well known for nothing except killing the unarmed teen Trayvon Martin - was served with divorce papers, the story was listed in the "Top Celebs" section on the TMZ website. The go-to 'tude for most stories is snark.

Beckerman reviews TMZ on TV's content daily at the 12:20 p.m. run-through, checking for propriety issues and other legal red flags, then again at 1 p.m. when the episode first airs in certain markets. He describes this part of his job as "litigation avoidance." Contrary to what almost everyone assumes, TMZ is sued very infrequently: once every eight months, if that, Beckerman estimates.

There are several reasons for this, he says. One is "a very powerful thing": the First Amendment. "It gives news organizations a great deal of leeway," he says. (Characterizing Paltrow as an "a-hole" is opinion. Covered.)

Beckerman also points out that the U.S. Supreme Court a half-century ago granted broad protection to reporting about public figures in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision (376 U.S. 254 (1964)), and that the Ninth Circuit has routinely expanded those protections to "nontraditional" news sources, including gossip rags. (He cites to Dorsey v. Nat'l Enquirer (973 F. 2d 1431 (9th Cir. 1982).)

But Beckerman says the importance of anti-SLAPP laws passed in many states, including California, can't be overstated. These "provide sanctions to dissuade lawsuits that are intended to silence free speech," he says, and can hasten the resolution of bogus lawsuits. Beckerman says that since he's been at the network, TMZ has won every anti-SLAPP motion it has filed.

Finally, he credits "fair use," a doctrine that grants journalists the right to use copyrighted material to a limited degree, for the purpose of news reporting - something Beckerman says is essential to meaningful reporting and commentary.

The TMZ legal team is cautious, he insists, flagging "anything that would be susceptible to defamation or privacy claims, valid or not." Citing the time and money lawsuits devour, as well as the bad publicity they can bring, Beckerman says, "Any litigator will tell you that as soon as you're sued, you lose." He sits back. "I really take pride in TMZ having so few lawsuits."

The Lamar Odom crack-denial story is just the kind of story that would have to be thoroughly vetted. "If it's not true, it's defamatory and will get you sued and you could lose," Beckerman says, noting that the repercussions to Odom's career and reputation would be momentous. The vetting process involves questioning the reporters about their sources, getting independent confirmation of facts, and contacting the accused party. "Of course they're probably going to deny it, but you have to go to them anyway, and include their denial" in the story, he says.

If there's any doubt about the paucity of litigation claims against TMZ, consider this remarkable fact: Beckerman constitutes exactly half of TMZ's legal team. The other 50 percent is Derek Kaufman, who came aboard in May and now screens the stories that are posted to TMZ's four websites (the flagship TMZ.com, TMZSports.com, and celebrity sites TooFab.com and Fishwrapper.com); he also vets TMZ content for YouTube. However, the network, owned by Warner Bros., has hundreds of WB attorneys at its disposal for matters pertaining to employment law, FCC issues, intellectual property disputes, and the like.

A small pile of lawsuits sits on Kaufman's desk. But they are cases that TMZ reporters have gleaned from trolling the Internet or other sources. The bulk, of course, involve musicians, actors, and other celebrities alleging copyright infringement, assault, and the like. Part of Kaufman's job is to explain to the reporters, in plain English, what the suits are about.

"The reporters are young," he says with bemusement, "they don't really understand a lot of the jargon." Kaufman is 33.

Once the reporters' stories are written, he peruses them again for accuracy.

Kaufman says he confers "all the time" with Beckerman, whose office is adjacent and whose temperament Kaufman credits with making his job doable.

"If you had a very high-strung lawyer it would be a nightmare, because every day it would be 'the sky-is-falling.' But Jason's very even-keeled," he says. "Harvey has a ton of energy. You need someone who has a calming influence, and he has that."

When Harvey Levin stops by, he doesn't so much enter Beckerman's office as insert himself into it. There appears to be no protocol. Both an investigative reporter and lawyer some three decades back, Levin agrees that Beckerman's disposition is optimally suited for TMZ.

"Pondering doesn't work," Levin says. "You gotta have good instincts and if you don't, there are consequences. It's kind of a ten-second rule - someone hands you documents, and you have ten seconds to get to the heart of the matter."

Levin is proud of his TMZ reporters, comparing them favorably to those at the New York Times when it comes to accuracy and digging for a story. He clearly relishes the team he's created, and an air of reflected glory permeates the newsroom. It's as if reporting on the foibles of celebrities makes the staff part of the story, if not morally superior to the people they cover.

Beckerman sometimes gets drawn into the game. He's a regular fixture on TMZ on TV and an occasional commentator on the live show. One day he's discussing legal aspects of various stories; in a second appearance he parries for several minutes with Levin over the efficacy of U.S. military involvement in Syria ("I'm still not sure how that happened," he laughs); and a third finds him part of a group discussion about a Brigham Young University basketball player kicked off the team for premarital sex. (His defense was "soaking" - penetration during which both parties agree not to move so as to technically remain virgins. Yes, really.)

OCCASIONALLY TMZ FINDS ITSELF MAKING NEWS. There was the 2010 brouhaha in which the spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court was fired for allegedly leaking information to TMZ. Most of the information in question was pretty dry - judges' expense reports, sheriff's department contracts - and the spokesman, Allan Parachini, denied the charge. Beckerman says that TMZ "had no involvement in the Parachini incident." Levin, on the other hand, is loaded for bear. "The L.A. Times did totally shoddy journalism and the story was categorically false," he blurts.

Then last spring, TMZ made headlines when it was sued in federal court by a defendant for surreptitiously placing microphones on the bench of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, as well as on prosecution and defense counsel tables without their knowledge. (See the sidebar "Live from the Courtroom" at the end of this story.)

"We get all types of criticism," Beckerman says. " 'It's prying,' 'It's fluff,' 'It's not news.' I disagree with most of that, but once you accept that it is news, you can't disagree that the quality of reporting is really good."

Kevin R. Boyle was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., when Beckerman was there some years ago. Now he represents clients who may turn up as the subject of TMZ stories.

"TMZ is always operating on the fly, and sometimes gets things wrong," he states. "But I can call Jason and he'll listen, and to his credit he'll correct it." Boyle adds that though "lawyers don't think TMZ has the greatest reputation, having someone like Jason there gives it greater credibility."

Criminal defense attorney Blair Berk represents many clients who are of interest to TMZ - including Kanye West and CeeLo Green, the singer and coach on NBC's The Voice.

Beckerman, she says, is "a very smart lawyer who has a very good understanding of the rule of law and is willing to listen." Berk, of Tarlow & Berk in Los Angeles, continues: "I'll call him up, screaming at the top of my lungs, and it takes time for him to talk me off the ledge, but he keeps his cool, and then we get into a productive conversation about the matter at hand."

Then she adds, "I say this reluctantly, [but] TMZ is one of the most efficient media outlets when it comes to immediately correcting mistakes. They're much better than most of the so-called traditional media outlets."

Vetting content for the TV shows and appearing on-screen actually constitutes less than half of Beckerman's duties. Since TMZ's 2005 launch as a website, it has been expanding so rapidly that several months ago it moved its operations from West Hollywood to a full-square block campus at The Reserve, near Marina del Rey. The new digs once housed a post office distribution facility, and its open-space work areas and combination cafeteria/rec room, with snacks and the obligatory ping-pong and foosball tables, feeds into the frenetic pace of the 25-odd reporters and the technical staff. All told, more than 200 people are on the team.

To manage this expansion, Beckerman spends about 60 percent of his time on more typical general counsel tasks. These include negotiating with video and photo content providers, and coordinating distribution deals and reviewing revenue sharing arrangements among TMZ's programming and distribution networks.

BECKERMAN GREW UP IN A LOS ANGELES NEIGHBORHOOD he describes as "pretty white-bread." His father taught at UCLA, and his mother was a nurse turned real estate agent.

Playing catcher on his high school baseball team, Beckerman had dreams of joining the majors. This aspiration lasted until the first day of college baseball season at the University of Connecticut, when another catcher showed up who was "four inches taller, forty pounds heavier, and he could hit the ball to the moon."

He realized he needed a new career plan. He consulted with his father, who suggested law because "I've always been argumentative."

After Beckerman graduated from Loyola Law School in 1998, he quickly landed a job in Washington with Kirkland & Ellis, where initially he was "the defender of big tobacco, big automobiles, big pharmaceuticals, big insurance." Though he didn't particularly like the work or the "incredible" hours, he attests, "Everything I learned about how to be a lawyer, I learned from that job." Later he moved into intellectual property and combating piracy.

After Beckerman had spent two years attending meetings populated by "men with blue suits," one day an attractive blond attorney representing Philip Morris walked in. "She says I made a beeline right to her," he laughs. He and Jeanna, now his wife, have two girls, ages 6 and 4.

When his practice group split off from Kirkland in 2003, Beckerman moved with it to Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Los Angeles, dragging Jeanna "kicking and screaming" to the West Coast. ("Now she loves it," he notes.) In late 2006 he made another move, to the Beverly Hills-based business and entertainment boutique Eisner & Frank. There he established the litigation department and "took whatever [matters] walked through the door."

Then in early 2009, a litigator friend at Warner Bros. told him that TMZ had an opening, and the rest is history.

These days Beckerman and his family live in Santa Monica. He describes himself as an avid runner and sports fan; he's also well-traveled, having visited some 65 countries.

Though TMZ is all about celebrities, when it comes to mingling with them or attending events that they frequent, Beckerman calculates he has "zero" involvement.

"It's not who I am, personally," he says, matter-of-factly.

And maybe, too, he knows that when it comes to TMZ, it's better to vet than to be vetted.


Live from the Courtroom

It seemed like a perfect story for TMZ: A man and his girlfriend were accused of attempting to extort money from music legend Stevie Wonder. But in May 2012, in Los Angeles Superior Court, the network itself became the story when, midway through a pretrial hearing, hidden microphones belonging to TMZ were discovered in three locations: behind books at counsel tables for both the prosecution and defense, and on presiding Judge Ray Jurado's bench, where they potentially could record secret and privileged communications - and transmit them instantaneously to TMZ.

Last March, defendant Alpha Walker's attorney, Ian Wallach, filed a federal suit against TMZ and its cameraman for violations including invasion of privacy, eavesdropping, and jeopardizing his client's defense. (Walker v. TMZ Productions, Inc., No. Civ. 13-02268 (C.D. Cal.).)

"In 16 years [I] have never ... had a media organization surreptitiously record a bench officer, a DA and two defense attorneys," said Francis Young, the deputy district attorney, when the mics were discovered. She requested that the equipment be confiscated.

The cameraman, Christopher Manivong, said he had permission to bring microphones into the courtroom (albeit in full view) and that he had been following standard TMZ policy: The volume was turned down during sidebar discussions. "Your Honor," he told Judge Jurado, "I can say in confidence that nothing was recorded when you guys went on sidebar."

After the court reviewed the video and audio recordings and concluded that they con- tained no discernible privileged conversations, Manivong was reprimanded but allowed to keep his equipment.

Walker's lawsuit against TMZ and Manivong sought a minimum of $100,000 in damages. However, it was dismissed with prejudice, pursuant to a stipulation by the parties. - S.S.


Stan Sinberg is a San Francisco-based writer who has worked as a columnist, satirist, and radio commentator.

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