When most people heard about Britney Spears opening a new restaurant, they thought of celebrity spotting, dining and drinking. But Bill Bastone, founder of The Smoking Gun Web site, thought about finding health inspection documents.
Bastone, who gave a Master’s Tea at Calhoun College Wednesday, said he always looks for the paper trail. His Web site provides visitors with an array of government and law enforcement documents. Bastone said when he launched the Web site, the public feedback was “immediate and enormous.”
A former Village Voice crime reporter, Bastone described his role as a pioneer in electronic media.
“We invert the equation,” Bastone said. “We give the reader the primary source material with a small amount of background, and it’s up to the reader to create the story.”
Launched in April 1997, the Web site contains thousands of original documents and photographs from law enforcement and government archives, including CIA memos and confidentiality agreements by major motion picture stars.
“We have stuff on nobodies on up to Britney Spears, and everyone in between,” Bastone said.
The Smoking Gun uses government and law enforcement sources via Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain its documents.
The collection of mug shots includes pictures of Vanilla Ice, Marilyn Manson, Bill Gates and Don King. The Smoking Gun also publishes the backstage riders of popular musicians, including documents showing Jennifer Lopez’s request for a fully white dressing room and a Guns N’ Roses request demanding, among other things, two “large jars E-Z serve Sue Bee honey.”
With 35,000 visitors a day, the site’s success has surprised Bastone. He said the site conducted a survey showing that the average subscriber is a well-educated, wealthy male.
“It was a side project that got very big — I was stunned,” Bastone said.
Bastone said the site thrives off its regular updates, especially on major news breaks. When Washington, D.C. sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s name was released, Bastone was ready.
“In 90 minutes, we had everything — divorce papers, mug shots, criminal charges — the whole deal,” he said.
Calhoun College Master William Sledge said he came across Bastone’s Web site while browsing the Internet.
“We do a broad search of interesting people, and many decide to come,” Sledge said.
When asked about the ethical implication of his work, Bastone explained how his site differentiates between public and private sources and only publishes what is already available to the public.
“We would never do explicitly personal stuff; that’s for supermarket tabloids,” he said.