Harvey Levin, '75, of TMZ Tells Students Why His JD Matters

Harvey Levin

Harvey Levin's days as Executive Producer of TMZ.com and TMZ TV are filled with Hollywood scandal and gossip-drug arrests, broken marriages, and trips to rehab are a mild sampling of the usual fare.

Law school may not appear to have a strong connection to his chosen career, but Levin says it does.

During a recent lunchtime talk with students, Levin said his University of Chicago Law School education provided the basis of whatever success he has achieved since graduating from here in 1975. Calling the Law School "the transformative place of my life to this day," Levin said it was here that he learned to think critically and poke at arguments.

"Even though I don't practice, there isn't an hour that goes by when I don't use what I learned here," he said. "My training as a lawyer is so much more valuable than any training I could have gotten as a journalist... The skill you learn in this room, there's nothing close. Whatever I've achieved, it's because of here."

Students filled the seats and any other space Room II had to offer on Oct. 18 to hear Levin's lecture, titled "Privacy and the Media."  Levin called the visit "improbable," considering his time here almost didn't happen.

The Law School was one of several law schools where Levin had applied while studying in a political science masters program in Madison, Wisconsin. After sending his application, he received a letter from Dick Badger, then the Dean of Admissions, asking Levin to drop by the Law School if he was ever in Chicago. Eventually, Levin decided the masters program wasn't for him, and he was hired at a job in Sacramento, California. On a six-hour layover in Chicago between flying from Madison to Sacramento, Levin called Badger for a visit.

Levin must have made an impression because Badger offered him a spot, suddenly open after another student left, in the law school class that had started that previous week. After receiving official admittance from the Admissions Committee several hours later, Levin stayed in Chicago instead of flying to Sacramento.

Several years after graduating from the Law School, Levin entered the world of journalism as a legal reporter for KNBC TV in Los Angeles. By 2002, he already had held a series of television reporting positions when he created Celebrity Justice, a television show that was ground breaking for its refusal to rely on celebrity interviews to fill air time. Instead, Levin followed a traditional journalism model: Report on celebrities' legal troubles using court and other public records and give them the opportunity to tell their sides of the story-there would be no sugar coating of the truth to curry favor with publicists.

TMZ.com, with its heavy reliance on public records, also follows this model. But Levin said there are times he draws the line on what types of news stories are fit to report.

"We self analyze all the time," he said. "We are aggressive journalists and yet I will defend a celebrity's right of privacy... I believe we respect that."

Students were particularly interested in an idea Levin mentioned to bring a TMZ-style show to Washington, D.C. The show would engage people in politics in a more user friendly way by showing the political world's fun and interesting sides, Levin said.

"If you can get people engaged in something silly or simple in a congressman's life, then suddenly they're going to listen to what that guy has to say because they have a connection with him," Levin explained.

To learn more about Levin's thoughts on privacy and how he encourages TMZ employees to respect celebrities' boundaries, watch the video of his lecture.