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Website Claims Scoop on Jackson Testimony

The Smoking Gun releases much of what it says is the transcript from the grand jury proceedings last year.

February 18, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

The three-man staff at the Smoking Gun had been crashing on the story well into the wee hours Wednesday night and then through the day Thursday -- scrambling to review, scan and post hundreds of pages of what the website claimed was grand jury testimony from the Michael Jackson child-molestation case.

"We need a back room full of monkeys to put all this stuff up there," said William Bastone, co-founder and editor of the New York-based news outlet. "We are not called on very often to process this much stuff."

Tired but ebullient, the Smoking Gun's operators appeared, once again, to have scooped the nation's biggest media outlets -- and plenty of tabloid competitors -- by obtaining and publishing much of a 1,903-page document that had been sealed by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville.

Repeatedly over the last eight years, the tart, celebrity-centric website -- thesmokinggun.com -- has found and posted original documents about the missteps of the rich and famous -- and those who aspire to the same.

The site once outed the dream-groom of Fox Television's reality program "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" showing that Rick Rockwell had been the target of a restraining order for allegedly threatening an ex-girlfriend.

It obtained and posted the 1977 Oui magazine interview in which future movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had bragged about his sexual escapades. Also making its debut on the site's colorful pages: a judge's account of former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith's difficulties with math and her finances. (She couldn't seem to decide the right number of zeros when balancing the books.)

The website's targets have routinely been angered, but unable to dent the credibility of the reports.

Many of the revelations, however, have challenged mainstream media outlets, where news managers must decide whether to republish the information.

On Thursday, editors at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times were among those who decided not to run accounts of the purported grand jury testimony in today's editions. Neither newspaper could confirm that the transcript on the website matched that on file in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. Associated Press, which supplies stories used by many newspapers and broadcast outlets, took a similar position.

At the Santa Barbara News-Press, which is widely circulated in Santa Maria, where the trial is taking place, managing editor Linda Strean said the paper was still working Thursday evening to try to confirm the Smoking Gun document.

"We are in process, as they say," she said.

Selection of a jury for the trial is scheduled to resume next week after a break called when Jackson, 46, fell ill.

Jackson's attorneys have bemoaned earlier leaks of grand jury information to the Smoking Gun and ABC News, noting that the defense is not present during grand jury hearings and witnesses before the panel did not face cross-examination.

Media advocates argued that Thursday's postings showed the need for more openness in the Jackson case, in which virtually all documents have been sealed and participants on both sides have been ordered not to speak publicly.

"This is one of the great fallacies of these gag and sealing orders," said Kelli Sager, a lawyer for many media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times. "Pieces of information inevitably get leaked, but the public doesn't get the whole picture or know for sure whether the documents are real."

While it focuses on the outrageous and offbeat, the Smoking Gun's founders and operators are highly thought of by many peers at more traditional news outlets.

Bastone spent more than 15 years as an investigative reporter at the Village Voice in New York City, where he built a reputation as one of the top authorities on the city's byzantine world of organized crime.

His onetime Voice editor and friend Wayne Barrett called Bastone a "genius" at ferreting out documents and sensitive information.

One of the Smoking Gun's co-founders was Daniel Green, another former Voice employee whose father is a real estate magnate and whose uncle, Mark Green, made a failed bid for mayor of New York.

Bastone and Green started the venture in 1997, working part time out of the Voice offices on a site designed by Bastone's wife, Barbara Glauber.

A breakthrough came in 2000 with the Rockwell restraining order. That same year, Bastone and company sold the site to Court TV. They now operate out of the cable outlet's Manhattan offices.

The Smoking Gun draws millions of visitors and performs best among young men 18 to 35, according to the site's operators. Only 28 sites on the Internet are cited more often by blog operators, according to one tracking service.

One standing feature, "Mug Shot Mania," features stars at their lowest moments -- often seeming strung out and painfully dissipated. In a 1972 shot after his drunk driving arrest in Anchorage, Steve McQueen waves a peace sign and smiles wanly.

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