Two players in the Michael Jackson saga are getting ready to sue website TMZ. The accusation: that Harvey Levin’s information gatherers obtained a ‘scoop’ from stolen materials found in the files of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department.
Debbie Rowe, the mother of Michael Jackson’s two eldest children, and Marc Schaffel, Jackson’s former business partner, have already had several email exchanges with the TMZ lawyers through their attorney, Howard King.
The issue: a video clip that TMZ posted on July 20th of Rowe from outtakes of an interview Schaffel produced in early 2003.
Among the issues: whether or not TMZ, which has paid for interview materials in the past, bought the clip from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department.
King sent a strongly worded letter to the Sheriff’s Department on July 27th that was the culmination of a week of frustration determining where the clip had come from and how it had been obtained.
King’s letter demands an investigation. ‘We can conceive of absolutely no reason for the County Sheriff or the District Attorney to have made the video available to the news media and to have permitted copying of the same.’
He also wrote: ‘One can only surmise that a government official was compensated to alert TMZ to the existence of video still in the possession of the County Sheriff”
The problems began just three days earlier, on July 24th, when TMZ’s attorney,’Jason Beckerman, admitted in an email to King that the video clip had indeed been obtained from the Sheriff’s Department. He wrote in an email to King that the clip was simply found in ‘the publicly accessible files of the Sheriff’s Department,’ and that no one directed TMZ to it or helped them find it.
Six days later, Beckerman changed his mind. He wrote to King in a second email on July 30th: ‘My earlier comments on this subject were inaccurate. TMZ did not, in fact, obtain the DVD in question from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff Department’s files.’
Following Jackson’s acquittal, all those materials that formed the evidence from the child molestation trial were supposed to have been returned to the people from which they taken, or destroyed.
The video clip has since been removed from the TMZ website.
King tells me: ‘When TMZ ran the outtake from Marc’s interview of Debbie, we immediately accused them of copyright infringement and publication of clearly stolen materials. They agreed to remove the item and identify the source so as to assure me they had not illegally obtained the footage, in exchange for me not suing. After I agreed, they identified the source as the sheriff. But then, TMZ retracted and told me they got the tape from another source that they would not identify. The only other sources would be the lawyers in the molestation case, who would have had access to all fruits of search warrants, under strict obligations not to disclose.’
King says after an investigation, Rowe and Schaffel will sue TMZ for, among other things, copyright infringement and misappropriation of Rowe’s name and likeness without consent.
And there are other issues still to come in such an investigation since there may be other materials thought only to have been obtained in the Sheriff’s Department investigations of Jackson that may have turned up in the media. As for TMZ, they’re part of the Time Warner empire through its syndication arm, Telepictures, and not subject to the same journalistic rules applied to Time Warner’s magazines such as Time or People.