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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 the same set of skills. When I covered organized crime and municipal corruption... (I used) the same set of skills, only we've kind of tweaked the equation" to provide quick newsworthy hits rather than long form stories.

Of course, because TSG has a reporting staff of only three, it depends in large part on tips and story suggestions. But as the site's fame has grown, that has become a big part of its business.

And in fact, Bastone said, the Frey scoop came as a result of a reader writing in and asking for a mug shot of the author.

"We thought, OK, we'll go grab a booking photo," Bastone said. "Our initial inquiries came up dry, which we found curious. We read the book very carefully, and certain parts didn't ring true to us."

In fact, Bastone said, the TSG's Frey scoop consisted of the same kind of document hunting and investigative research any reporter would do.

"Except that we were the first ones to decide to do it," he said. "Yay for us, but the actual mechanics would not come as a surprise to anyone who's done that kind of reporting."

Bastone seems eager to play down TSG's accomplishments, despite the fact that the site gets tens of millions of page views a month and is seen as the feeding ground for mainstream news organizations.

And while the news business is driven by scoops, some observers don't think mainstream publications should worry too much if they're beaten to a story by a site like TSG, as long as they're quick to react when it happens.

For example, Sreenivasan pointed out, the first reports that Sen. John Kerry had chosen Sen. John Edwards to be his running mate for the 2004 presidential campaign came in the blogosphere after someone had seen Kerry's campaign plane with Edwards stickers plastered to it the night before the official announcement.

"I don't blame the big newspapers for not having that, because they can't have people just covering plane tails," Sreenivasan said. "But once it's out there and then you're (still) not paying attention, then I blame the reporters. To have The Smoking Gun (or other online sites) get the story, that's OK. But then to have your direct mainstream media competitor get that, then you've been scooped twice, not just once."

In any case, some might find it noteworthy that a now-famous site that's built its reputation on the notoriety of those involved in legal matters has yet to post a story about the one lawsuit filed against it. A contestant on an ABC reality show sued TSG after it ran a report calling her educational credentials into question. The case is still pending.

"We will publish legal threat letters (against us) if someone famous' lawyer is threatening to sue us," Bastone said, explaining why TSG hadn't reported on the suit. "We're not that interesting."