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The Smoking Gun Is On Fire

This story was written by CBSNews.com's Melissa McNamara.



It started with an anonymous e-mail on Nov. 21: "You should get a mug shot of James Frey."

A typical suggestion for The Smoking Gun. The Web site features hundreds of mug shots, categorized by genre. But when the investigative team searched for a police booking photo of the author, they couldn't find one.

"What should've been a very brief pursuit, wasn't. We couldn't find anything — strange (for someone who said he spent three months in jail)," says William Bastone, 44, the site's co-founder.

Intrigued, Bastone bought "A Million Little Pieces," and read it, along with the 3.5 million who bought the book after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.

"Lots of stuff did not ring true to me ... and read 'fake,' " Bastone says. So he e-mailed Frey.

"At that point, we were off," Bastone says.

The three-man team, including managing editor Andrew Goldberg and reporter Joe Jesselli, zeroed in on parts that could be confirmed by photos or legal documents. After a cop finally located Frey's mug shot, it led to his criminal record — that is, his very short prison stay.

"We knew right then and there that we had fire, a lot of fire," Bastone says.

The Smoking Gun quickly wrote a 13,000-word report — yes, with Oprah in the first line. They also immediately called Frey to alert him to the soon-to-be published report. Frey's high-profile attorney, Marty Singer, sent a five-page legal threat letter to stop them from publishing it. They were not dissuaded.

"Frey lied to us, lied to his lawyers, and lied to his fans," Bastone says.

Thanks to catchy headlines and mugs, The Smoking Gun draws about 50 million hits each month, Bastone says. Not bad for an operation run by just three guys. The trio work so well together they have held off hiring another person, budgeted since 2001, with a computer and desk just waiting.

Nestled into a large corner office on the 16th floor of Court TV's Manhattan East side headquarters, its space is shabby, corporate chic. Think fancy dorm room. Burnt orange file cabinets and an FBI circular rug bought on eBay stand out amidst walls of windows and slick computer monitors. Rather than a generic metal name plate, a tattered piece of paper taped to the door is the only indication of their location.

Their office bustles with energy from the friendly trio who seem to genuinely love what they do, their faces lighting up when they get animated by a story.

"We run things very smoothly," Bastone says. "We all report, hunt stories."

Jesselli echoes this point. "We all do everything," he says.

Almost all their leads come from tips via e-mails, such as the one that launched the Frey investigation. And recent media attention has raised their profile so tips come more readily, Bastone says.

Bastone and his team start their day around 9 a.m., wading through hundreds of these e-mails (they respond to every one), before turning on CNN, and reading wires and the New York City daily newspapers. Of course, they also surf the Internet before leaving the office, around 7 p.m. When they're not sorting through tips sent to them, the editors fish around online court records and documents.

Bastone is proud of how their work has flourished from humble beginnings. Bastone was a Village Voice staff writer when he created The Smoking Gun site as a hobby with freelance reporter Daniel Green (now working on the business side) and Voice designer Barbara Gauber, Bastone's wife.

The site went live on April 17, 1997, with no business plan except "follow the paper trail." Court TV bought the site, for a sum reportedly in the low seven-figures in December 2000, and Glauber "took the money and never looked back."

Staying true to its mission, its scoops have often garnered national media attention.

In 2000, Fox did not rebroadcast "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" after The Smoking Gun found documents showing the groom once beat his girlfriend. They also published the 1993 testimony of the boy who sued Michael Jackson for sexual battery, and excerpts from a 1977 interview in Oui magazine where Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke about bodybuilders' sexual escapades and drug use.

The only story more popular than Frey? The unearthing of a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in October 2004.

But, frequently, the work that gets the most attention is mug shots, often of celebrities. The mugs are either publicly released by police or corrections departments, provided to The Smoking Gun on the sly by sources, or, occasionally, released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Their favorite mug? Nick Nolte.

"Until someone better comes along. Someone famous is going to have to do something really stupid and look really bad to compare," Bastone says. "We are at least partially responsible for the popularization of the mug shot image as part of poplar culture.

"If it involves a celebrity, or well-known business person, that's good; if it involves Bill Gates, that's great."

The only area off-limits is stories involving gore, like serial killers, and child abductions.

While The Smoking Gun is proud of all their work, they consider the Frey report one of their best, receiving nearly 76 million pageviews in January, about 50 percent more views than for the same month a year ago.

"Even if the Frey story didn't have the impact it did … it was a totally solid piece of journalism, taking advantage of what you can do on the Internet to the best degree possible, and provoking debate," Bastone says.

Journalism aside, do they feel sorry for the guy? Not really.

"I hate to see a guy brought down like that on television, but you can't forget he brought it on himself," Bastone says. "Here's a guy who created this whole other persona because it was the only way to market himself and his book, and it made him a millionaire."

Goldberg agrees. "If you took the fabrications out of the book, there's no book there," he says. "At this point, if he wanted to be truthful, he'd have to say his books are works of fiction."

"And he says five times in the book that he had two options, jail or death," Jesselli says, jumping out of his seat. "And we now know jail was not an option — the whole thing that was driving the book."

But that was yesterday's story. Next up on the investigative agenda: 26 strippers arrested in Orlando.

"After we finally moved away from crime stories, we're back!" Bastone says.

By Melissa McNamara

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