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Author Biography: William Bastone, an investigative reporter for the Village Voice; Daniel Green, a freelance journalist; and Barbara Glauber, TSG's designer and a principal of the graphic design firm Heavy Meta; together launched www.thesmokinggun.com in 1997.
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Barnes & Noble.com: What sparked the initial idea for The Smoking Gun web site? When did you decide to turn it into a book?
William Bastone: Having worked for many years as an investigative reporter at The Village Voice (where I covered organized crime and political corruption), I had collected loads of interesting documents that never formed the basis for a story. FBI reports, police documents, stuff from the National Archives, etc. Since the records often had a great narrative (and could often be pretty funny), I realized they would be of interest to others -- though how they'd be distributed remained a mystery. Enter the Internet, which I discovered (not in the Al Gore sense) circa 1996. Seemed like the perfect place to disseminate paper, of all things. Since everybody else was preoccupied with online's high tech bells and whistles, The Smoking Gun, we decided, would be really old school, as the kids say.
As for the book, we always wanted to do one so people could hold the documents in their hands, as opposed to looking at a lower-resolution version on their screens. The site is tactile to a degree, but it doesn't compare to actually placing one's hands on an insane FBI memo or wacky lawsuit excerpt. We decided to do the book about 18 months ago after we kept getting approached by publishers who thought the site might translate (back) into print.
B&N.com: Can you describe your process for discovering and publishing these documents?
WB: We get material in a variety of ways: filing Freedom of Information requests with government agencies, looking through court and other public records, and searching through archives (like the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Municipal Archives here in New York City). The key, of course, is coming up with the idea for the document. We want to find documents that make other journalists say, "Why didn't I think of that?"
When we obtain the documents, we review the material and pluck out the pages we think will work best on the site. They're then run through a scanner and posted to the site (accompanied by a brief text introduction).
B&N.com: Do you ever start with a particularly captivating rumor and try to dig up evidence, or do you prefer to comb through the files and see what turns up?
WB: Yes to both. If we hear something from a source (or a reader drops a dime) that sounds particularly interesting, we'll usually spend some time reporting it out. Sometimes we'll even chase something based on a strong hunch (which is how we tracked down the information on the background of Rick Rockwell, the groom from TV's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-millionaire?" A friend of ours watched the show (we didn't) and told us, "I just get the sense there's something wrong with that guy Rockwell." He just had a gut feeling -- and it was right.
And we love rummaging through court files. There's nothing better than finding a gem overlooked by everyone else. Or being the first one to get a document that's been filed.
B&N.com: Often, the info that has been blacked out on the documents is the most interesting. Have you ever been thwarted by overeager censors who black out the one piece of information you needed?
WB: Yes, I'd say this happens frequently with federal agencies like the FBI and CIA (with whom we file many requests). They seem to live by the credo, "When in doubt, redact." It usually takes two to three years for the FBI to process a big file and turn over documents to us. If we want to challenge any redactions, there is a separate appeal process within the Department of Justice that takes forever. Sometimes we will pursue an appeal, but since victories are rare, we often are stuck with what we've been initially given. That's why it's so much better when a law enforcement source gives us material directly/on the sly -- that way we cut out the middleman with the black Sharpie marker.
B&N.com: Have you ever been contacted by angry celebrities? I bet Martha Stewart wants revenge for your airing of her dirty laundry.
WB: While we're sure many of them aren't big fans of the site, to date they've been able to keep their sour feelings to themselves. But we are proud to note that the spokeperson for Puff Daddy/P.Diddy told the L.A. Times that we were a thorn in her side. So we've got that going for us.
B&N.com: The Smoking Gun book contains several sensitive documents, such as the police report describing Kurt Cobain's corpse. Do you occasionally turn up documents that you feel are inappropriate to publish?
WB: For the most part we avoid gory stories and have no interest in lingering over tragedies. For example, we initially posted a handful of documents involving the Columbine High School massacre. Since that time, thousands of other pages of records -- ballistics reports, autopsy records, police incident reports -- have been made public. We have no interest in that material since it a) has very little news value and b) serves little public interest in posting the documents.
From time to time we do obtain material that we will not publish -- usually because of graphic violence, sex crimes, or the involvement of minors. On this matter, our standards are not unlike every other reputable news outlet.
B&N.com: Some of the funniest documents in the book involve everyday people and not celebrities. How many hours of searching through files does it take The Smoking Gun team to uncover these tidbits?
WB: Most of our time is spent generating ideas and then executing them. By executing I mean obtaining the paper and then carefully going through it for usable documents. And, yes, everyday people are our lifeblood and produce the most interesting material. Sure, Tom Cruise's confidentiality agreement is nice. But we greatly prefer, for example, the kooky letters people send into their local Department of Motor Vehicles complaining about a license plate they deem to be offensive. Now that's entertainment!
B&N.com: Throughout The Smoking Gun book there is a running commentary on Dennis Rodman's exploits. Was he chosen for this treatment because of the sheer number of complaints against him, or is he a staff favorite for any reason?
WB: We just wanted to find a celebrity poster boy/girl who's always getting in trouble (and probably needs to have three law firms on retainer to handle the litigation load). It came down to Robert Downey Jr. and Dennis Rodman -- and the Worm prevailed. We're happy to report that in the days since the book has become available, Rodman has added two more incidents to his personal docket sheet. He's been charged with recklessly operating his speedboat and is also being investigated for spraying a bunch of people with a fire extinguisher following a dispute in a California nightclub. For Dennis, these are probably minor inconveniences. The Smoking Gun considers them possible material for Book #2.