The Smoking Gun riding high on Frey expose

The journalists behind the popular site are just regular reporters who have found a lucrative niche. Photos: Celebs mug for The Smoking Gun

Now that best-selling author James Frey has been thoroughly embarrassed by his onetime patron Oprah Winfrey, the muckraking news site The Smoking Gun has secured its place in celebrity takedown history.

Early last month, The Smoking Gun exposed the exaggerations in Frey's best-selling memoir "A Million Little Pieces." To say the least, the scoop led to a rough month for the author, culminating with a nationally televised tongue-lashing by Winfrey, who had recommended Frey's book to her audience.

Celebs mug for Smoking Gun

What many of Frey's readers probably don't know is just how tiny the news operation that exposed the author is. With only three reporters, the TSG staff is starting to exert an outsize influence on mainstream media.

The Frey expose was the latest in a list of celebrity exposes by the New York-based operation, which was acquired by CourtTV in 2001. The reporting team also outed the male star of Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" for having a restraining order against him. It was also the first publication to offer readers law enforcement documents in the recent Michael Jackson criminal trial.

And TSG may well have been the news organization that first named accidental-celebrity Steve Bartman as the Cubs fan who interfered with a foul ball late in game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series. On top of that, TSG was the muckraking operation that during the 2003 California gubernatorial campaign uncovered a salacious interview that now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave in the 1970s to the adult magazine "Oui."

According to traffic measurements by Omniture, the Frey expose led to TSG's second-highest monthly traffic ever, with nearly 75 million page views in January, said William Bastone, the site's co-founder and editor. That's about 50 percent more views than the same month a year ago. The only TSG scoop to get more attention from readers was the unearthing of a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in October 2004.

And when Oprah Winfrey--who had given Frey's memoir her official book club stamp of approval--, it was a crowning moment for TSG.

"It (was) smart on their part," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, the dean of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "They didn't go after some guy who sold 5,000 copies. They went after a guy who sold 3.5 million copies."

Given the site's influence--its scoops are often followed by mainstream media outlets throughout the country--some might be surprised to know that all its investigating is done by such a tiny group.

"It (was) smart on their part...They didn't go after some guy who sold 5,000 copies. They went after a guy who sold 3.5 million copies."
--Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

In 1997, longtime "Village Voice" reporter Bastone; his wife, graphic designer Barbara Glauber; and freelance journalist Dan Green wanted to start a Web site. Initially, they weren't sure what they wanted the site to be about, but realized it should be related to court documents.

"In my reporting career, I spent a lot of time in courthouses," said Bastone, "and I never threw a piece of paper or a file out. We had no idea who the audience would be. We just thought there would be people out there who would find it interesting to look at FBI memos or court documents."

The site's first front-page story was about an FBI memo discussing an agent's report about an informant's contentions that Elvis Presley was a cocaine addict.

"In retrospect," Bastone said, "it wasn't (very big). But it was what we had."

Before long, though, the site was seen as the de facto place to go for the latest lawsuits against or mug shots of celebrities, politicians, athletes and anyone else with some notoriety.

And yet, even as TSG's traffic blossomed, Bastone said, its reporters' methods hadn't changed from their days of writing for newspapers.

"I think we're doing the same kind of reporting we've always done," he said. "I worked at the Village Voice for 15 years, and I'm using

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