The Smoking Gun Heats Up

  • Share
  • Read Later
In the hopelessly retro newsroom at The Smoking Gun, it’s business as usual. Lead reporter Bill Bastone and his two sidekicks, Andrew Goldberg and Joe Jesselli, are poring over memos and mugshots in hopes of uncovering their next gem. Their last one was the motherlode: a mug of James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces and was himself shredded into even smaller parts on Oprah Winfrey. As pretty much everyone knows by now, the Frey mug, which was posted on thesmokinggun.com, was stamped with a code that led Bastone and friends to a corresponding police report that differed wildly from the account in Frey’s purported memoir. "The maximum amount of time he could have been held was five hours," says Bastone. In the book, that stay gets stretched to 90 days. When the police report hit TSG's fax machine, says Bastone, "we all read it and said, Bingo!" This week, the website got more attention by posting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report on Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident, and reporting that while Cheney had purchased a valid non-resident hunting license, he did not obtain a required "upland game bird stamp." Still, the Frey outing is what has landed TSG in the media spotlight like never before. "The benefit of a story like that?" asks Bastone. "It leads to more sources and tips."

Spoken like a journalist. But ask the suits running the business side of TSG what the Frey scoop means and you get a different answer—one with dollar signs attached. "This is now much bigger than the specifics they uncovered," says Henry Schleiff, CEO of Court TV, which bought TSG from Bastone and two other co-founders in 2000. The story encapsulates every major issue before the traditional media, says Schleiff. What is the proper balance of information and entertainment? What is the right mix of fact and opinion? When should reporters inject themselves into a story and when should they stay on the sidelines? What is the difference between investigating and merely reporting a story? What biases do conglomerate news organizations bring to their reports?

"There’s a huge debate within the industry and The Smoking Gun is now attached to it," says Schleiff. To drive home the point, he hastily organized a roundtable to delve into these matters last week. Bastone was one panelist. As a read on TSG’s heightened profile it’s worth noting that he was joined by some journalism heavyweights, including Don Hewitt, former executive producer of 60 Minutes.

The Frey scoop was by no means TSG’s first. The three former Village Voice reporters working in a single room with barren walls and technology that was old when they bought it in 1997 were first to publish some documents, including the secret grand jury transcript, in the recent Michael Jackson child molestation trial. They garnered attention in 2000 when they revealed that the groom on the Fox reality show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire had been hit with a restraining order after allegedly threatening to hit an ex-fiancee many years before. Their biggest score came in October 2004, when they posted the sexual harassment suit filed against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly by a former co-worker. That month TSG got a personal-record 77 million hits.

The Frey scoop generated just short of that last month. But it was a far different and more important story, and catapulted the website into popular view. TSG didn’t just post a document, which is its forte. It investigated claims in the Frey memoir and ran a 13,000-word expose (a typical story runs 200 words). "Something like this shouts your brand," Schleiff says of the scoop. "You can’t put a dollar figure on your brand."

In case you were out of earshot, Schleiff hopes to have reached you by sending 400 journalists copies of Frey’s book along with TSG’s report—which constitutes a massive marketing effort for a low-budget website. Schleiff is also bringing on a new online ad sales executive in the next few days and has instructed the sales force to play up the Frey scoop, believing it will attract enough advertiser attention for TSG and Court TV’s other websites to turn the corner and become a profit center. Until now, the online division (which includes crimelibrary.com and courttv.com) has existed mainly to drive traffic to the TV network.

"This could be a real revenue generator going forward," says Galen Jones, head of the online division. He and Schleiff are so confident that they’ve asked Bastone to finally fill a long-vacant opening for another reporter. They want to keep the scoops coming. Says Bastone, who wants to stay focused: "I don’t want to be a manager. The three of us here have clear responsibilities, and it works." So it does. But the moneymen have clear responsibilities of their own—and they aim to make it work for them too.