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Behind the gun
Embarrassing revelations about your favorite celebrities
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
For anyone who enjoys the thrill of knowing the inside scoop, the Smoking Gun website is Mecca. Via copies of legal documents and official memos, the Smoking Gun offers a peek into a side of public figures and current events normally off-limits, from J-Lo’s insistence on an all-white dressing room to mug shots of legendary gangster Bugsy Siegel. It’s the site’s reliance on first-source documents the separates the Smoking Gun from the tabloid rumor-mongering available in the check-out line at your local supermarket, and makes for addictive surfing. “Everything we do,” says Smoking Gun co-founder Daniel Green, “has to be there in black and white.”
Our interview with the people behind one of the web’s most compelling sites came right in the middle of a scoop. The Smoking Gun was besieged with requests for more information from journalists and other media watchers. It’s the kind of frenzy that the Smoking Gun seems to thrive on, but it doesn’t make the most conducive environment for an interview. “Lets do this some other time!” Barked frenzied co-founder and editor Daniel Green in a distinctive New York accent. “Call tomorrow!”
The Smoking Gun started in 1997 when freelance writer Daniel Green, organized crime reporter for the Village Voice William Bastone, and graphic designer Barbara Glauber started publishing legal documents and other items of interest they had collected over their years as journalists. Due to the website’s explosive growth and their reputation for achieving the impossible, the Smoking Gun was then purchased by Court TV in 2000. The Smoking Gun has spawned a book and a Court TV special, and the site itself now claims around 37 million hits per month. Its staff of Green, Bastone and four other reporters generates an incredible amount of material, and they do almost all of it themselves.
According to Green, the most popular items are the “mug shots” of celebrities. “Normally, they have make-up people, they hand-pick the photographer, they can do anything they want to make sure the image is just right. In front of the Tennessee police department, they’re afforded no such luxury.”
Green’s statement serves as an excellent summary of why the site has become so popular. The Smoking Gun lets visitors into a world of celebrities, public figures, and news events that’s devoid of publicists, spin doctors, and other media filters. Artist’s “riders” — the promoter/artist contract that covers everything from stage set-up to dressing room decoration requests — are another entertaining feature of The Smoking Gun. The artist riders are an excellent means to check how much truth lies behind celebrities frequent claims that they’re “just folks” despite the trappings of fame. Case in point: According to the Smoking Gun, Jennifer Lopez’s rider for a video appearance includes expensive demands that virtually everything in her dressing room be white — candles, flowers, couch – and a selection of CDs easily worth a couple thousand dollars. The sad truth is that the video Lopez was appearing in was part of a charity project.
But while the Smoking Gun may seem like a warehouse for scandal, the site is grounded in the journalistic background of Bastone and Green, and held to the standards they learned as reporters. In other words, everything has to be verifiable. “It’s tough to get some of this material,” says Green. “The majority of what we do is digging: searching databases, making numerous phone calls, dealing with sources…the same things other reporters do, except everything we do has a paper or photograph. We don’t base our stories on quotes or second-hand information. When you have a document, it’s a particularly effective tool for writing a story and backing up your information should it ever come into question.”
Another popular feature on the Smoking Gun is WMOB — selections from FBI wiretaps on organized crime suspects. WMOB’s first offering is the “Frankie & Fritzie Show,” conversations between Frank “Frankie California” Condo and Federico “Fritzy” Giovanelli of the Genovese crime family. The conversations between Fritzy and Frankie (they talk a lot about food) are frequently hilarious and sound like benign exchanges that might go on in the back room of the Bada-Bing club in “The Sopranos.” As the Smoking Gun says on their site, “One could almost forget that Frank and Fritzy are career criminals, racketeers who belong to an organization that uses murder as an enforcement tool.” (You’ll also probably have a lot of sympathy for the FBI people who had to listen to hours of this stuff).
The Smoking Gun is used as a resource for countless news organizations and publications. Green says that people now approach the Smoking Gun with possible stories, and that generally the information they get is pretty reliable. However, he says that the Smoking Gun comes up with the material for “probably 99%” of the stories themselves. If they don’t consider a story newsworthy, or can’t confirm the truth, they won’t do it. “We get some stuff that borders on the pornographic, or photos that are shocking but aren’t necessarily newsworthy. We won’t pursue those.”
Of course, most people don’t visit the site out of a desire to know the facts; they go for the excitement of the seemingly forbidden. The Smoking Gun has plenty to satisfy that kind of curiosity, and while evidence of celebrity self-indulgence or photos of movie stars having a bad hair day can be pretty funny, the real substance of the Smoking Gun is as a first-hand source for those newsworthy events Green talks about. There’s something final and irreducible about looking at a piece of documentation that changes a story from rumor to fact. Reading Linda Tripp’s notes in the Smoking Gun’s collection of material from the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, for example, you’re struck by the repercussions of those seemingly unremarkable lines. Hand-written on ordinary note paper, those notes played a big part in something that distracted an entire nation for the better part of a year, affected countless lives, and consumed billions of dollars. It’s a piece of history, all there in black-and-white. And that’s just one example among many. Even J-Lo would admit her tour rider pales in comparison.