William Bastone is editor and co-founder of The Smoking Gun Web site. He began his journalism career at the Village Voice in 1984, working first as an intern, then a contributing writer, and finally a staff writer, the position he held until leaving the weekly newspaper in 2000 to run The Smoking Gun full time. During his tenure at the Voice, Bastone, 44, was a member of the paper’s investigative reporting team, covering City Hall, criminal justice issues and, for more than a decade, writing regularly about New York’s five Mafia families. A lifelong New Yorker, Bastone lives in Manhattan with his wife and six-year-old son.
Bryan Keefer: You recently wrote a lengthy piece comparing some of James Frey’s claims in A Million Little Pieces to records in the public domain. That does seem a little far afield from the Smoking Gun’s usual fare. What led you to investigate the book?
William Bastone: What led us to look at the book was that on November 21, we received an email from a guy who visits the site — we get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails a week from people who have story suggestions, or they would like to see a mug shot on the Web site, or they want to know why we’re not covering a particular story, etc. And this particular guy wrote in on November 21, and said, you guys should get a mug shot of James Frey, the A Million Little Pieces author. He was writing in, as many people do, because we have a section of the site that has a couple of hundred mug shots of celebrities.
So it came in, and I saw it and wrote the guy back saying, we’ll see what we can do. And we decided to just look for a mug shot of the guy, because, obviously, we were aware of Oprah picking his book, and we had a sense that our audience might know who he is, and we know who he is just because he’s a New York guy and we see him on Gawker and Page Six and we read about his book readings at Barnes & Noble and about all these people showing up.
So initially it was just a relatively routine attempt to just find a booking photo of him. And had we found it right off the bat, we would have done what we had planned to do, which was essentially just a one-off - we would have taken it and tossed it into this large collection of mug shots, and that’s it.
What it evolved into was, we couldn’t find stuff, had trouble finding anything on him, bought the book, read the book and determined that according to his account, he’d been arrested 13 or 14 times, and we were having trouble finding any of this stuff. And then it just went from there.
BK: Have you done any other books before?
WB: No, that’s not our thing. There’s three of us, and if we decided we wanted to vet books, it would be the only thing we ever did. It’s a major undertaking, and frankly I can’t imagine anyone in our audience would really care. What are you going to do — spend a bunch of time vetting a book, and then you find out it’s all kosher, and then what have you done? You’ve wasted three or four weeks. From the get-go, something didn’t smell right to us, and that’s why we continued working on it.
In terms of it kind of not being what we normally do … We envisioned a site about documents, in that we didn’t necessarily want the site to look the way everyone else’s site does, where it’s basically stories, thousand-word stories, and no one ever shows you the primary source material upon which a lot of the stories are based. And we stuck to that for a long time. A year ago we did a bunch of more traditional, long-form narrative investigative stories in and around the Michael Jackson trial, in part because we obtained and had access to documents that were under seal, including all of the sheriff’s reports in the case, search warrant affidavits, and then after that we obtained the entire grand jury transcript, which was under a court seal. So we posted a lot of that material and wrote long narrative pieces based on those documents.