William Bastone on James Frey and The Smoking Gun

The author of a recent exposé on A Million Little Pieces discusses the story behind the story and Vanity Fair's questionable use of Photoshop on a recent image.

William Bastone

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.

So when we ran into the Frey thing, it struck us that probably would be a smart way to explain it. … Instead of just posting the documents with a small accompaniment, it seemed that to tell the story in the right way, you had to contextualize, and for people who didn’t know you had to explain Oprah’s role in it, you had to be able to compare and contrast what he wrote in the book to what the documents said, and we ended up speaking to a lot of people, a variety of people who had first hand [knowledge] — the arresting officer, the investigating agent. So it just kind of morphed into something more detailed and involved than we usually do. We understood it was a big story, and we wanted to make it clear by the heft of the story that this was something we, the Smoking Gun, considers a little bit different than our normal fare.

BK: In preparing the article, it appears you had conversations with Frey himself that both you and he agreed were off the record.

WB: The first two conversations, yes.

BK: OK. And then when you wrote the piece, you write in the article that you felt that his publication on his Web site of an email from you asking for a final interview constituted a waiver of that confidentiality. Why did you make that particular decision?

WB: Well, it was not only asking for a final interview — that obviously wouldn’t do it. … Friday January 6 was our last interview with him, which was on the record. It didn’t go too well. He told us that he had been rattled by our prior conversation, that he had gone out and hired a lawyer, and that the lawyer had written us a letter, but he told the lawyer not to send us the letter — it did not go too well, and he wouldn’t answer any questions.

So we sent him a note, we sent him an email on Saturday, saying, look, [Smoking Gun Managing Editor] Andrew [Goldberg] and I both live in Manhattan, you live in Manhattan, we’ll meet you anywhere you want to meet this weekend, we really want to talk to you about stuff. … Late that Friday night, he sent us a five-page legal threat letter, so I was responding to the legal threat letter, things that were said in the threat letter, that we knew not to be true.

So we wrote him a long thing saying, your lawyer’s saying these things, and you told us when we spoke to you, you told us this and this and this, and you also said this, and you told us this but we found this, and you said this but we found this, and I just laid it out. It was us to him, no one else involved; we didn’t send it to the lawyer. I told him, we’re not going to the lawyer, it’s just us to you — subject of the story, from the authors of the story.

And a lot of that material that I put in the email, the overwhelming majority, were things that he told us off the record that we then went and [examined]. We told him, listen, you’re going to talk to us off the record, but if you say something, we’re going try and figure out whether you’re telling us the truth, we’re not going to use those words out of your mouth.

So we sent him the [response]. We never heard back from him. He didn’t write us back. We found out, I think it was around 10:00 or 10:30 that evening, that prior in the evening, I think he did it at 7:00, he posted our email to him on his Web site. So it wasn’t just a request for the interview, it was a request for an interview with all this other stuff that we put in it, that I put in it to him to try to kind of say, you told us this off the record, and this is what we found, and your lawyer is making these assertions, threatening to sue us, but you yourself told us these things, and told us this that contradicts the lawyer.

So he posted the whole thing. And as far as I was concerned, it was a totally clear waiver on his part. I can’t be in a position where we have an off-the-record conversation, and then you — the subject of the story — choose to publish everything that we spoke about off the record, and then that continues to keep me handcuffed. He can’t be the only one publishing it. I can’t be in a position where he’s beating me to the publishing of the story.

And I think that it was an unambiguous, totally clear waiver, in which he made a decision that it would be beneficial to him to try to pre-empt what we were going to do. Why he did it, I have no idea. But I think we were totally solid in terms of saying, now that you’ve done that, we consider that an unambiguous waiver on your part.

BK: Do you worry at all that sources might dry up because of that decision?

WB: No. Look, a source should understand — nothing, not a single thing, [was] improper on our part. And sources should understand, if we’re going to talk confidentially, and then you go and publish everything we spoke about, what am I supposed to do? Not say anything? No. You waived it. No, I have no problem. If we were in a position where we screwed them, we just decided “we don’t feel like honoring that pledge,” then that would be different.

I don’t want to say it’s a close call. It’s not a call at all. I think it’s something anyone would agree with. If you have an agreement, and then the person goes and publishes everything, should he be the only person who uses it? I’d have to say no. It’s a waiver — it’s a clear, unambiguous waiver on his part. And he hasn’t said anything [arguing the other way].

BK: Last week you posted a piece documenting that a photograph that appeared in Vanity Fair had been altered to include somebody who wasn’t there. How did you get tipped off to that? Was that just, you saw the photo and it looked a little shaky?

WB: No, someone we know was aware of the details of it.

BK: Do you think that sort of practice is widespread?

WB: To tell you the truth, I have no idea. … There was an item [subscription required] that Page Six did about it, and Vanity Fair came back and said something along the lines of, it was a production screw-up. And I think that they had planned on, I guess, including some of those little Kodak strips along the side of the Arnett image to make it clear that [someone] was sitting in [for Arnett], and he wasn’t part of it. [Ed.: A Vanity Fair spokesperson told the Post, “Originally there was a Kodak film border separating the Arnett photo from the group shot. Unfortunately, it was taken out by mistake in the final stages of production.”]

But that’s bullshit, because the credit says “photograph by” and it says that they all were gathered on a particular date at their former hangout. And they Photoshop’ed it. … I don’t know that was the greatest job. Had I been unaware that he was placed there, had I looked at the image, would I have known? I don’t know that I would have known. But I just thought that after the fact their claim that “oh, it was a production thing” really just doesn’t [cut it]. They attempted to make it look like he was there because [people would ask] “Why couldn’t they get him there?”

And they had to have him in the picture because, frankly, he’s the only one anyone would have known. … None of those [other] guys are household names, at least not as far as I could tell. So Peter Arnett was the star of the group, and they had to make it seem like he was standing there.

BK: Last question, here: The Smoking Gun has published a number of riders that celebrities get in their contracts, like Jennifer Lopez’s demand for Diptique candles and The Game’s demand for Hypnotique and Jolly Ranchers. What do you ask for when you go on TV or make personal appearances?

WB: Ah, I don’t ask for anything. If I was of that station in life where I could kind of push people around and get stuff, I’d probably want an unending supply of Mallomars, whether they’d be in season or out of season. Outside of that, I have no other demands.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.