Defending Harvey Levin

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Remember back about three years ago when Mel Gibson, the actor, was arrested in Malibu for driving under the influence?

There's a new controversy swirling around the aftermath of his arrest. And it's one that actually matters more than the gossipy details of another actor getting busted.

The details, of course, are what made Gibson front page news in the first place, and not just in the tabloid press.

To quickly review, on his way to jail, Gibson verbally berated the deputy who nabbed him. He also launched into a tirade that can only be called anti-Semitic, blaming "the Jews" for causing all of the world's problems.

Gibson has since done the American Big Apology thing and blamed his alcoholism. Most has been forgiven.

At the time, your public servants at the LA County Sheriff's office put out the misinformation that Gibson had been arrested without incident.

Why, you might ask, was the sheriff lying to the public to protect Gibson? It turns out that Gibson was a friend of the department and supporter of Sheriff Lee Baca.

The arresting deputy was told by a superior to withhold from his report the nastier details of what actually happened during Gibson's custody.

We know about any of this only because the celebrity news website TMZ scooped the rest of the media with the real story. Including detailed, accurate quotes from Gibson's tirade.

It was a pretty good scoop that the LA Times or the TV networks would have been happy to have. It helped elevate the image of TMZ, which was then fairly new and often dismissed as little more than a paparazzi outfit.

OK, now fast forward to this month.

The sheriff has been trying to make case against the arresting deputy all this time, accusing him of disloyalty.

The LA Times reported that, in the end, no charges would be filed – and dropped the bombshell that in going after the deputy, the department obtained a search warrant to check the personal cell phone records of TMZ's editor and chief reporter, Harvey Levin.

So now you've got cops, embarrassed by a news report, prying into the confidential sources of the journalist who embarrassed them.

California has, wisely, forbidden such violations of freedom of the press in the state constitution and in statue. It's a First Amendment issue, and even District Attorney Steve Cooley – whose office supposedly OK'd the warrant – says it violated his policy.

The warrant was authorized by Superior Court Judge Deborah Andrews, but she hasn't talked about it. Sheriff Baca dismisses the whole thing, saying it's a controversy only the media cares about.

On that part, he's probably right. But more people should care.

In the new PBS documentary about the Chandler family, there's chilling audio of President Richard Nixon ordering a senior White House aide to use the power of the federal government to go after Otis Chandler, because Nixon resented the LA Times.

Official attempts to hurt reporters and expose sources is a problem that never goes away. It requires continual vigilance, something the old-school media is less able to do as it gets smaller and weaker and can afford fewer lawyers.

Levin was suitably outraged by the invasion of what are part of his journalistic notes, and also concerned that sources with important stories to tell will feel less secure about calling him.

Levin says he also reason to believe that the sheriff has spied on more reporters' records -- that the tactic may have become routine.

If so, we should all be concerned. It doesn't matter if the reporters being violated work for the New York Times or TMZ.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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