Web site catches celebrities

Evidence: The Smoking Gun compiles documents and mug shots that expose the infamous acts of the famous.

April 03, 2003|By Michelle Megna | Michelle Megna,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - William Bastone and Daniel Green, co-founders of www.thesmokinggun.com, don't round things off. Ask how many visitors their expose Web site had in February, and they'll tell you: 4,756,767.

It's all in the details.

Consider the difference between reading in the newspaper about court documents accusing Michael Jackson of molesting a young boy, or reading a graphic account of a sexual act from the 13-year-old's 1993 deposition, which was posted on the Web site.

"It's a much more compelling narrative," Bastone said, dryly.

Remember Rick (Restraining Order) Rockwell of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? What about bondage babe Sarah Kozer of Joe Millionaire?

The Smoking Gun broke those stories by posting the restraining order against Rockwell and still images from the Kozer videos. It also busted Busta Rhymes for the rider in the rapper's concert contract calling for ribbed condoms backstage.

Site visitors so enjoy reading concert riders that Bastone and Green created a "Backstage" section that features 134 acts. These include that Jennifer Lopez's dressing room must have designer candles, white drapes, white furniture and white lilies.

Just this week, reports on the site led to a finalist on television's American Idol being kicked out of the competition, Fox network executives said.

Fox removed Corey Clark, 22, after The Smoking Gun found he is to appear for trial next month on charges that he assaulted his sister and then resisted arrest at his family's home in Topeka, Kan.

But it's not just sensational tidbits that make the site so successful. In addition to exposing celebrity foibles, it posts documents such as prison, police and medical examiner's records, such as those relating to the death of Malcolm X. A flight manual that investigators believe was used by the Sept. 11 terrorists also was posted.

"You will always find something at our site that you can't find anywhere else," Bastone said.

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz said "The Smoking Gun has become a journalistic gold mine because it produces the one thing - raw documents - that every reporter needs to nail down a story. Journalists get hundreds of tips and rumors to check out, [and they don't] always have the time to go through dusty files to find supporting documents for their stories."

Kurtz refers to 2001, when prominent journalists wrote "embarrassing suck-up letters to [Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski" seeking to get exclusive interviews. Kaczynski ultimately donated the letters to the University of Michigan, which turned them over to The Smoking Gun. "That story never would have seen the light of day without the Gun site," Kurtz said.

Larry Pryor, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and executive editor of Online Journalism Review, says that print and broadcast media, constrained by space, time and advertisers' sensibilities, can miss the essence of a story by glossing over the details.

"I saw TV reporters who started to read the Jackson document, [but] because it was too graphic, they paraphrased [it] with ambiguous language," Pryor said. "What works really well in online journalism is documents. The Smoking Gun had the whole deposition, made under oath. It's sensational, but it isn't gossip, and it leads the public to think we have a right to prosecution. Where's the DA?" (A civil suit by the boy's family was settled out of court.)

Before creating their niche in cyberspace, Bastone and Green worked in print: Bastone was a crime reporter for The Village Voice, and Green worked as a freelance magazine writer. As investigative journalists, the two accumulated FBI reports, court affidavits and memos.

They realized the powerful effect raw documents can have on readers - seeing an FBI "confidential" stamp makes you feel as if you're in on the discovery, part of the gumshoe game. In 1997, they first posted their collection on the Web, never expecting their project to become a full-time occupation.

"They're good at fact-gathering and have a good sense of timing," Pryor said. "They're topical. And they're focused on a specialized beat. That's one reason why they're capable of beating large organizations that have to focus on the bigger picture."

It often takes less than 20 minutes from the time a document is found to confirm and post it, Bastone said - a journalistic fast break.

Armed with little more than the Freedom of Information Act, help from two reporters, computers and scanners, Bastone and Green work in an office that was once Court TV's mailroom. "We follow leads for months. Check court dockets, municipal records, things like that," Green said.

Scott Pansky, president of the Entertainment Publicists Professional Society, disagrees. He says the site is more about digging up dirt than uncovering compelling facts: "They're taking advantage of people in the limelight, and of the sensationalism of being a celebrity."

Regardless of the topic, the approach is the same - the reason The Smoking Gun is still smoking. Bastone and Green say their site looks and reads the way it did in 1997, when they launched it with a previously unpublished FBI report detailing Elvis Presley's drug use.

They sold the business in 2000 to Court TV, which makes Green show up for only one meeting a week; otherwise, they're left alone. Bastone says Court TV is planning two half-hour specials this summer based on their material.

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