NEW YORK — On Thursday afternoon, William Bastone, the editor and founder of the Smoking Gun Web site, huddled in front of a small television in the site’s office in midtown Manhattan with his fellow staffers. They tuned in to watch Oprah Winfrey confront best-selling author James Frey, whose memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” she had chosen for her coveted book club. Just weeks before, she had called in to CNN’s Larry King to defend Frey’s memoir despite Smoking Gun’s investigative report that showed he had wholly fabricated key elements of his book. Her tone this time was different.
“I feel you betrayed millions of readers,” Winfrey said to Frey, showing her anger. Frey cowered as Winfrey continued to question his memoir until he finally admitted that he had made a mistake and that he lied.
“She took him to the f–king woodshed,” Bastone said. The Smoking Gun, which is owned by Court TV, was able to get the live satellite feed of Winfrey’s show, and Bastone was sending updates to the Web site Gawker during the broadcast. “Oprah delivered the goods today,” he continued, sounding elated and surprised. “We weren’t counting on that. At the end of the show we were actually feeling bad for the guy because he looked like he had gotten run over by a truck.” Along with Frey and his editor, Nan Talese, Oprah had gathered a panel of journalists to talk about the Frey phenomenon, including The New York Times’ Frank Rich, Richard Cohen from The Washington Post and Stanley Crouch from The Daily News, who all essentially took the author to task for brazenly lying to the public.
“I give Oprah a lot of credit,” Bastone said. “She’s incredibly powerful and she could have just ignored the whole thing. She didn’t.”
But it could be argued she couldn’t ignore what had already become part of a national debate. The mainstream media has continued to follow up on the subject ever since Smoking Gun broke the story on Frey about three weeks ago. The New York Times alone has published no fewer than 15 articles and op-eds in 17 days directly related to “A Million Little Pieces.”
In an age when even a whiff of gossip on a celebrity is often enough to produce headlines and blog posts, the diligent reporting of the Smoking Gun’s three-person staff stands out. “I think the site’s great,” said New York Post Page Six editor Richard Johnson. “We have worked together on a number of things. They’re good reporters. I think they’re better than a lot of other reporters.”
Journalists, bloggers and anyone keen on keeping up with the latest scandals are certainly familiar with the Smoking Gun — known for tracking down mug shots (e.g., Yasmine Bleeth, Nick Nolte) and legal documents such as the allegations by Michael Jackson’s accuser — but few are familiar with its workings.
Bastone, who as a reporter for the Village Voice covered organized crime for many years, is an expert document tracker, having often secured federal records via Freedom of Information Act requests. “For us, the story doesn’t exist until we can get a piece of paper,” Bastone said. “Where’s the paper? Where’s the document? Is there a police report? Is there an incident report? Nothing, then no story. We move on to something else.” According to the site’s reporters, Florida is one of the best states to track down information, whereas it is far more difficult in New York state; the NYPD and the LAPD are also less forthcoming with documents.
In the case of James Frey, managing editor Andrew Goldberg initially hit a wall when he discovered that Frey had had his court records expunged. “I was pretty upset about that,” Goldberg said, “but Bill took it as a good sign.” The fact that Frey had attempted to erase an element of his past, one he wrote extensively about in his book, was a red flag for Bastone. “I knew he was hiding something,” he said.
They looked into Frey’s arrest in Ohio, where he wrote in his book that he had hit a cop with his car. “He refused the Breathalyzer on that one,” Goldberg said, “which triggered a suspension of his license and a notification to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which had a date of arrest on it. With that date of arrest, the police were nice enough to look through mug shot books based on date. After they found the mug shot, they found the arrest file based on the number in the mug shot. The document was sitting in the basement of the police station.”
Six weeks into their search, they nailed down every piece of paper that could possibly be associated with claims in Frey’s book.
After the site interviewed Frey a number of times, his lawyer, Martin Singer — whose law firm represents celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — sent a letter threatening legal action. The Smoking Gun’s response was to post the letter on the site as part of its exposé on Frey.
“Once you’re a product of the Village Voice and you have constantly had run-ins with bad landlords and hoodlums and politicians who throw you down flights of stairs,” Bastone explained, “to have an entertainment industry lawyer threaten you doesn’t really keep you up at night.”
While Bastone and his staff at the Smoking Gun didn’t need any further edification for their reporting, Frey finally confirmed on Winfrey’s show Thursday that the site’s story was accurate and that they “did a good job.”
But despite the controversy thus far, readers have continued to buy Frey’s books. As of Thursday, “A Million Little Pieces” sat at the top of The New York Times Bestseller list in the nonfiction paperback category, and Frey’s follow-up memoir, “My Friend Leonard,” is ranked third on the list’s nonfiction hardcover category. Whether Winfrey’s stunning reversal and sharp confrontation with the author on Thursday’s show will have any affect on sales remains to be seen.