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This Smoking Gun Got a Scoop and Killed a Show

A chance remark about 'Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire' led to a case of the wedding-bell blues for Fox and an explosion of publicity for the investigative Web site.

March 03, 2000|LAURA LIPPMAN | BALTIMORE SUN

Suddenly, everybody loves the Smoking Gun. Well, maybe everybody except Rick Rockwell and Rupert Murdoch.

An Internet site devoted to providing primary source documents from high-profile news stories, the Smoking Gun (http://www.thesmokinggun.com) was the first news organization to reveal the checkered dating history of Rockwell, the groom on "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"

The Smoking Gun's founders, William Bastone and Daniel Green, not only posted copies of a restraining order obtained by one of Rockwell's former girlfriends, but they also obtained the TV couple's marriage license, proving the marriage was real.

They also highlighted how Rockwell used different but similar birth dates on the two documents--which Bastone said gave them pause, until they were able to ascertain it was the same Rick Rockwell on both documents.

Since it was founded in April 1997, the Smoking Gun has had its share of provocative stories, from obtaining the true age of New York Yankee pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (he was four years older than he claimed) to publishing the confidentiality agreement Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman require of their hired help (inadvertent leaks to the press are fined at half the rate of deliberate ones).

But the "Millionaire" scoop, as it is billed on the New York-based site, has generated new traffic highs on the Smoking Gun, with a million page views Feb. 21 and 22. Typically, the site has 1.7 million page views in an entire month.

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Not bad for a paper-centric Web site whose journalist founders never bothered to figure out who their target market is. And not bad for a story that started with a buddy's brainstorm after a basketball game.

Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for the Urban Future, was eating dinner with Green last month when talk turned to the "Who Wants to Marry" phenomenon, which then appeared to be the next big thing in television programming.

Bowles recalls: "I said, 'It's crazy that no one's written a whole lot about this guy Rick Rockwell, and everyone's enamored of this program, and there's no information. You never know what you'll be able to find; he might have a criminal record or a checkered past.' "

That was the last Bowles was to think about Rockwell for several days, but Green took his idea and ran with it. The next day, even as the program made the news, Green was digging into Rockwell's past.

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But unlike other reporters, who checked records in Rockwell's hometown of San Diego, Green decided to look in the Los Angeles area as well, figuring that Rockwell's scant movie resume meant he had logged some time in the area. (Green told Time magazine that his site's L.A. correspondent "is a 25-year-old guy who's got a car, petty cash and directions to Superior Court.")

Green, a freelance writer, and Bastone, an investigative reporter for the Village Voice, worked furiously for almost two days, posting the documents Feb. 19. They then decided to try to drum up a little publicity for their enterprise. Bastone called a friend at the New York Daily News, Green called another friend at the New York Post, and they e-mailed Jim Romenesko, whose MediaNews site is a favorite with, well, the media.

The Post picked up the item, and from then on, news organizations throughout the country--and the world, in some cases--credited the Smoking Gun with knocking the wheels off what was shaping up to be Fox Television's runaway hit.

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Although the production company behind "Who Wants to Marry" claimed it had done a background check on Rockwell, using a private detective, Bastone is skeptical. "I'm thinking if I'm [Fox owner] Rupert Murdoch, I'm looking into a refund."

After the Smoking Gun's research came to light, Fox decided to back away from the "Who Wants to Marry" concept. It even canceled a scheduled rebroadcast of the original show.

Which leads the Smoking Gun, for once, to ask other journalists for a piece of information.

"We've been waiting for someone to write about what the financial impact is," Bastone says. "We want someone to tell us that our site cost Rupert Murdoch X millions of dollars."

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