Where there is smoke, there is sometimes a raging firestorm.
The exposure of James Frey's fabrications in A Million Little Pieces - which culminated last week in Oprah Winfrey's tirade against the author before a riveted national television audience - began with a two-sentence e-mail on Nov. 21 to a Web site run by three guys in New York.
At TheSmokingGun.com, editor William Bastone was accustomed to such requests from readers to see police mug shots, a staple of the site, where a section called "Arresting Images" includes a trove of hilariously undignified pictures of celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte and Hugh Grant, caught, booked and fingerprinted for offenses ranging from using drugs to consorting with ladies of the evening.
But the request for a similar shot of Frey, who had claimed in his best-selling memoir to have been arrested more than a dozen times, initially turned up nothing.
"We thought, that's kind of strange," Bastone, a longtime reporter for The Village Voice who started The Smoking Gun in 1997, said in an interview Saturday. "Usually, give us 15 minutes and we'll find someone. We were going to find that mug shot if it killed us."
Bastone and his partners, managing editor Andrew Goldberg and reporter Joseph Jesselli, long ago earned their reputation as dogged diggers of dirt, the kind of stuff that family newspapers won't dignify by printing.
When a 13-year-old accused Michael Jackson in 1993 of molesting him, his graphic deposition was posted by The Smoking Gun. The site also exposed the drunkenness, bankruptcies and pornographic pasts of reality-show contestants, particularly of some on CBS' Survivor. It published a restraining order sought by an ex-fiancee against Rick Rockwell of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, and images from bondage and fetish videos of Sarah Kozer, a blushing candidate on Joe Millionaire.
Readers of the site learned that Jennifer Lopez demands white curtains, white furniture and white lilies in her concert dressing rooms.
Not everything is trivial. The Smoking Gun published a flight manual apparently used by the terrorists who struck on 9/11, as well as a medical examiner's long-suppressed conclusions about the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. With the Frey story, Bastone hit pay dirt and showed how an Internet site with meager resources and a skeletal staff can leave traditional media coughing dust in their wake.
Larry Pryor, a professor of online journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and a former editor at The Los Angeles Times, said he did not see Internet investigative sites as competition for mainstream media, but "more as complementary."
"It works both ways," he said. "The New York Times' expose on the National Security Agency's domestic spying lit up the blogosphere. The Smoking Gun's story about Frey and the fudges in his book was picked up by everyone on the Internet.
"Then, Oprah went on TV and supported the book, and the criticism she received on the Internet was horrendous. This is becoming a circular pattern, and it can repeat many times."
Like traditional media
In that context, Pryor said, "I don't think new media is that different from traditional media," except, he went on, that "it's maybe not as consistent."
In addition, he warned, Internet surfers should watch out for the "ideological tinge" of certain blogs and sites. "The good thing about The Smoking Gun," he said, "is that it's straight reporting."
Eventually, as Bastone and his cohorts dug deeper into Frey's history, two mug shots surfaced, as did a slew of inconsistencies and concoctions in his account of a drug-addled, criminal existence, his brawls with police and the death by hanging of his girlfriend, whom he failed to save because he was serving an 87-day stint in jail.
None of it occurred, Bastone and his partners found. Or at least not remotely the way Frey said it had. The result was an expose titled "A Million Little Lies" and written by Bastone over the New Year's weekend. Posted on Jan. 8 on The Smoking Gun site, where it remains, it became the talk of the publishing world.
Modestly, Bastone sees the Frey story as all in a day's work. "There's nothing really special about what we did," he said. "We run the site in a very backwards, 1997 fashion. We're pretty pathetic. I don't even know HTML. We can't travel with Joe Jesselli because, if the plane went down, he's the only one who could keep the site going."
Still, Bastone acknowledged that conducting what he called a forensic analysis of Pieces was "probably the smartest decision I've made in years."
It has also led, inevitably, to an avalanche of attention.
"I can't count the number of nights in the last few weeks that I've fallen asleep answering e-mails," said Bastone, who estimated that about 580 messages arrived, mostly supportive, after last week's Oprah Winfrey Show .
"Newcomers to the site hopefully will realize that not every day is James Frey day at The Smoking Gun," Bastone said. "We don't do that kind of story every month or the wheels would come off the site."
The no-frills aura of TheSmo kingGun.com, owned since 2001 by Court TV, is deliberate. "We don't go on junkets, and we don't deal with PR people," Bastone said. "We'd rather establish a relationship with a detective squad in some county somewhere. We love a good police report, full of misspellings and police-ese. If someone famous gets arrested somewhere, we'll get a call - so-and-so is being booked in the next room."
After repeatedly protesting his innocence and threatening lawsuits against Bastone and his partners, Frey turned up on Winfrey's show last week and stumbled through a mea culpa.
The revelations about Pieces have "opened up a lot of other areas on inquiry into James Frey," said Bastone, who hesitated before committing to a probe of its sequel, My Friend Leonard, now under way, because he did not want to be seen as "piling on."
But "Leonard" himself, supposedly a hoodlum with mob connections, "is not anyone I've ever heard about," said Bastone, who had spent a decade writing in The Village Voice about the mob.
A disclaimer in the sequel, Bastone said, "doesn't begin to cover what we've found" so far in the way of fabrications. Frey, he said, should have written a far broader explanation of what his disclaimer covers. "Unless he puts that in," Bastone said, laughing, "he's got exposure!"
Thomas L. McPhail, a journalism professor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, suggested that Frey simply classify the new book as fiction. Otherwise, he's fair game.
"There are no closets left," he said. "There is no place to hide in the age of the Internet. If you're going to do something in the public realm, whether as a professional, in sports, or in literature, the Internet has become so pervasive that no one is untouchable."