Tabloid Law

A report from the chaotic fringes of the First Amendment, where publicity collides with privacy and the check-out line leads to the courtroom

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

TABLOID LAWYER CORNERED IN CHURCH!

IFIRST learned about the tabloid wars during the after-service coffee hour at my church, in Auburndale, Massachusetts. An older couple were introducing their son, Jay Lavely, to the congregation. Lavely is a lawyer in Los Angeles. Like most of the L.A. lawyers I would later meet, he looks a decade younger than his age, which is fifty-five. Whether they are well preserved or re-engineered I have no idea.


As we chatted, Lavely told me what kind of law he practices. He represents celebrity clients in lawsuits against the supermarket tabloids. He and his partner, Martin Singer, have represented Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Selleck, Brad Pitt, and many other stars. We briefly discussed an article I had read in the tabloid Globe, which claimed that Schwarzenegger's heart-valve surgery had rendered him unfit for action-hero roles. I thought the article was silly, but Lavely took it quite seriously. His partner had already filed a $50 million libel suit against the paper.

Upon further acquaintance I learned that Lavely and his handful of colleagues in the anti-tabloid bar despise the excesses of the three mass-circulation weeklies -- the National Enquirer,the Globe, and the Star. To those on the receiving end, the excesses are quite real. The tabs routinely print confidential medical information about celebrities, or compromising, invasive photos of them. The reporters harass, bribe, and eavesdrop in their pursuit of tab-worthy stories. I suppose it's a character failing, but I like the tabs. For one thing, they have a puckish sense of mischief, borrowed from London's Fleet Street, which is sorely lacking in America's self-important mainstream newspapers. In surveys hardly anyone admits to buying the tabs. "I glance at them in the check-out line" is the stock response. But somebody must be buying them; five million copies are sold each week.

I occasionally buy them. I enjoy a half hour at the kitchen table savoring their outlandish tales ("TINY POOCH FIGHTS OFF KNIFE-WIELDING MANIAC TO SAVE TEEN"), oddball investigations ("GOVT. PLANS TO WASTE $15 MILLION KILLING 800,000 HELPLESS ANIMALS"), and offbeat features ("SWIMSUITS MAKE WOMEN STUPID"). I've kept half an eye on the evolving Elizabeth Taylor-Larry Fortensky soap opera, and I'm not too proud to ogle some leafy telephoto pix of Brad (Pitt) and Jennifer (Aniston) cavorting in their Caribbean hideaway -- before I read Richard Holbrooke's latest fascinating op-ed piece on Kosovo, that is.

So, listening to Lavely's tales of suing, shoving retractions down the tabloid editors' throats, and scoring big-dollar judgments against the weeklies, I said to myself, Why would anyone want to do that?

CAROL BURNETT TABLOID SHOCKER!

ONE answer to that question is, Because it is possible.

The modern era of tabloid litigation began on a spring morning in 1976, when Barry Langberg, a thirty-three-year-old entertainment lawyer, accepted a phone call from the comedienne Carol Burnett.

"She called me up from New York, and she was in tears about this article that had come out in the National Enquirer," says Langberg, an intelligent, courteous whippet of a man whom his most ferocious opponent calls "the patron saint of the tabloid bar." Langberg, too, seems to have been dipped in southern California's fountain of youth. Like every plaintiff's lawyer I interviewed, he is a relaxed but stylish dresser and enjoys a well-appointed office with a magnificent view of the dusky L.A. skyline. Twenty-odd years of suing the deep-pocketed tabloids has made many a comfortable career in the City of Angels.

Burnett explained herself: In a gossip-column item the Enquirer had reported that "a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger," at the Washington, D.C., restaurant La Rive Gauche. Then Burnett "traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert." The tab recounted another altercation with a different diner, strongly implying that Burnett was drunk.

"She was truly hurt by the article," Langberg told me in his office. "Her parents were alcoholics; she had done a lot of high-profile anti-alcohol campaigns. She wasn't thin-skinned, but this article had a huge impact on her. At the time, there were tremendous obstacles to this kind of suit. [the landmark Supreme Court ruling that granted the media extraordinary license when covering 'public figures'] was only twelve years old. There was a feeling that if you were a star, you had to take that kind of abuse -- that it came with the territory. And the Enquirer had a pretty good record of getting out of trouble. I told Carol what the pattern was -- that the Enquirer would make a lawsuit hard, long, drawn-out, and very expensive. And she answered, 'I've got the time, the patience, the resources, and the desire to do it.'"

Burnett proved to be the tabloid's worst nightmare: a determined, wealthy, principled plaintiff. She rejected settlement offers. The Enquirer published a retraction. She didn't care; she wanted to go to trial. When the case finally came before a Los Angeles jury, in 1981, she was as poised and charming on the witness stand as she had been in countless television specials. Sadly for the Enquirer's (subsequently dumped) law firm, Rogers & Wells, the case had a plethora of "bad facts." In a deposition a Florida-based editor of the Enquirer said that he distrusted the source of the original report and had rewritten the item himself. A reporter testified that he had tried to fact-check the item one hour before deadline and failed. Two of the restaurant's employees came forward and said they had told Enquirer reporters that Burnett hadn't been drunk at all.

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