ON Tuesday, TheDirty.com posted some pictures of Matt Leinart that the site's bloggers said depicted the Arizona Cardinals quarterback and former USC star at a party in his Scottsdale backyard. The party had everything: booze, hot-tubbing and girls from Arizona State University. The Dirty also said that at least two of the girls pictured weren't old enough to drink.
Who cares, right? Wasn't this just another celebrity gotcha moment? Add it to the pile. I won't speak for everyone, but put it this way -- the bar is pretty high these days to make this gawker choke on his cheesecake.
But here's the trick: The Leinart photos are the exception to The Dirty's Rule. The Dirty is not a celebrity gossip site; it's a regular folk gossip site, complete with regular folk paparazzi. Its roots are in Scottsdale, 10 miles from ASU, where the founders hit on the idea of egging on college kids to snap scandalous pictures of each other.
It's just that this time, Leinart got caught in the crossfire.
"I got tipped off that Nick Lachey, Vanessa Minnillo and Matt Leinart were having dinner at Sapporo on Friday night," said the site's main writer, "Nik Richie," who calls himself the "first-ever reality blogger."
"Someone took a picture on their cellphone and sent it to me. I put it up and I just put a warning out saying hey, if these guys do anything crazy, send me the pictures."
"Lo and behold, the next night," Richie continued, "these guys went out to Dirty Pretty, [a club] in old town Scottsdale," then afterward went back to Leinart's house, "and it was just a college fest. They got dirty."
The local tabloid
The Dirty execs said that they've received e-mails from other students who know the girls, and had also looked at the girls' MySpace pages, and that all of it confirmed they were below drinking age. But these are also guys whose bread and butter is to make regular people look like jerks. None of them would give me their real name, because, they said, they're worried about retribution -- they often refuse to remove unflattering pictures when people ask. (Quick thought experiment: Someone snaps a picture of you in a bar, maybe holding your martini a little crooked, and the next day it's on a website that gets 250,000 hits a day. Would you want to know who put it up there?)
So I'm taking everything they told me with a grain of salt, starting with their self-identification as a tech-savvy group of "very successful businesspeople," including some who have sold companies for "seventy-five or a hundred million dollars."
What you can't take away from The Dirty, however, is that the idea of hyper-local tabloids is something pretty dag original.
"Ninety-eight percent of our stuff is through submissions from a regular person of just funny stuff someone was doing, or stuff maybe they shouldn't have been doing," said The Dirty's COO, "Ray Levine."
"It makes it so much more interesting to the reader because it's reality, so it's not Britney Spears or Paris Hilton -- it's in your own hometown," said "Ari Golden," The Dirty's president and CEO. "It's so much more interesting to see something about your neighbor or your co-worker."
The Dirty has sites in a few dozen cities and is trying to plant its dirty seed at as many colleges as possible. This is a good business plan because college towns generate the most photos per capita of drunk college kids.
Do these guys feel any pangs of conscience for posting pictures of people, celebrities or otherwise, that might end up embarrassing them or harming their reputations?
"A little bit," Richie said. "No, I'm just kidding."
But was he?
"We do it very satirically and tongue in cheek. There's no malintent," COO Levine said. "I don't think anything we do is going to break someone or destroy their life.
"Everyone looks at celebrities or someone else and are pointing the finger at them for what they do, and they don't really realize that they're doing the same, if not worse. It's just that no one's paying attention.
"So the next time they go to pass judgment or throw a stone at someone in the limelight," concluded Levine, "maybe they'll think twice about it."
What's that? For-profit gossipmongers telling their readers -- The Dirty Army -- to go out and snap as many embarrassing pictures of people as they can, and then when they're questioned about the moral implications they say they're doing society a service?
Maybe it's true that we should all try harder to see the hypocrisy in our schadenfreude-addled Britney addictions. But it's hard to take that civics lesson from this particular set of guys, who won't even use their real names. And look at the site for five minutes and you'll see plenty of stuff that's not so altruistic.
One Dirty blog entry featured a picture of a guy just standing there smiling. Below was a caption that contained the guy's full name. Then it said: "He is a car salesman who thinks he is gods gift and brags that he makes 200k a year and his girlfriend is a '10.' Too bad I saw her on myspace and she is a total cougar! She is 45 and almost as ugly as he is! If he is so rich why doesn't he buy his own car instead of driving a demo vehicle!!? . . . His teeth are really yellow and slimy also and he has a double chin."
Yeah! You go, Dirty! That'll teach people to stand there and have their pictures taken!
Read more about online entertainment and connected culture at the Web Scout blog: latimes.com/webscout.