Michael Avenatti on domestic violence story: TMZ should get ready to open up its checkbook

I hope TMZ is treating this threat with the seriousness it deserves. After all, the last time Avenatti trained his legal firepower on an enemy in a defamation cause, his client [checks notes] got wrecked on a motion to dismiss and ended up being ordered to pay his opponent’s attorneys fees.

The opponent in said case being the president of the United States.

So TMZ had better get ready to open up its wallet and, uh, deposit a check from Michael Avenatti in the billfold, I guess.

“Levin” is Harvey Levin, head of TMZ and formerly a friend of Trump. (POTUS is chummy with all the gossipmongers from his years as a tabloid star.) As of three months ago, though, the bromance had reportedly cooled:

According to the two former editorial staffers, sometime around the start of 2018 the restrictions on anti-Trump stories mysteriously loosened. They never got a memo explaining why, but TMZ’s website is now rife with clips of celebrities criticizing the president. Recent videos have included actor Mickey Rourke calling him a “garbage can” and Levin referring to Trump’s July closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a disaster.” In early August, Trump publicly criticized basketball star LeBron James. Afterward, an article on the TMZ site defended James and referred to Trump as “the most vile President ever to hold office.” Levin then hopped on Twitter and wrote of Trump, “He’s got to go!!”

What changed? According to a person with knowledge of the relationship, not long ago Levin and Trump talked on the phone regularly. But they had a falling-out over the president’s repeated efforts to ban transgender troops from serving in the U.S. military—a policy Levin finds repugnant. (Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner and Kris’s ex-husband, recently told Variety that her support for Trump had curdled over the same issue.) According to the source, Levin and Trump haven’t spoken for months.

Has the rift since healed? Or, in naming Levin as a Trump sycophant in good standing, is Avenatti just following the same strategy as he did yesterday with Jacob Wohl, blaming the domestic-violence uproar on a Trump-allied enemy in hopes that his liberal fans will arrive at the conclusion that this is all some sort of dirty trick?

As you probably know and Avenatti certainly knows, it’s difficult for a “public figure” to win a defamation suit in America even if a news report about them is badly wrong. Wrongness isn’t enough; to win you need to show “actual malice.” Actual malice doesn’t mean “Harvey Levin is a Trump crony and has it in for me.” It means showing that TMZ published something which it had reason to know was false or which it published with reckless disregard for its truth and falsity. Was it reckless for TMZ to report that Avenatti was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence? Er, no, because … that’s actually true:

Was it reckless of TMZ to report that the incident involved Avenatti’s ex-wife, Lisa? That was false. But (a) they updated their story to correct the record on that point and (b) once again, getting a detail wrong — even an important detail — doesn’t automatically amount to defamation. The question is whether TMZ was reckless in publishing it. How many sources did they have telling them that the incident involved Avenatti’s ex? Did they attempt to check that claim in any way? Even if they were reckless about that particular detail, could Avenatti show that his reputation was damaged by that mistake even if the rest of the report was accurate in all respects?

You can read the original story here. If all of the details mentioned in his tweets are wildly wrong, i.e. the woman having a swollen face and Avenatti allegedly saying, “She hit me first,” and he could show that TMZ never bothered to check them after its original source fed them the info, maybe he’d have a case. But to believe that TMZ was that haphazard, you’d have to believe that Levin decided to wing it on an explosive, reputation-ruining story targeting a highly litigious tort lawyer who’d just gotten finished suing the president on the same grounds that TMZ might be sued. Anything’s possible; not everything’s probable. Even assuming that Avenatti could show that the specific details he mentions were not just factually wrong but recklessly published, how much marginal damage did they do to his reputation relative to the perfectly true claim that he was arrested for domestic violence? How much extra business might he lose from a false “swollen face” detail relative to the business he’s going to lose from the fact that the LAPD hauled him in on suspicion of a terrible crime?

I don’t think Levin’s worried about going bankrupt. And I doubt Avenatti seriously believes he’ll be getting a check from them. The “open your wallet” thing is just an on-brand bit of spin to keep his fans in the fold: He’s gonna fight fight fight the evil Trumpers who are supposedly conspiring against him. Here he is yesterday talking to, er, TMZ.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on February 02, 2023