"Entertainment Tonight" aired a story about the birth of Angelina Jolie's twins despite being repeatedly told beforehand that the report was based on information from someone impersonating Jolie's assistant, according to documents and two people with knowledge of the exchange.
The celebrity newsmagazine denied Wednesday that it knew about an impostor before the broadcast. The identity of the impostor remained unknown.
On Friday morning, the show posted a story on its Web site and sent an e-mail alert to media outlets saying it had confirmed the birth of Jolie's twins. The Associated Press picked up the report.
"Entertainment Tonight" did not name its source at the time. It later revealed that the report was based on e-mails from someone it thought was Jolie assistant Holly Goline.
Shortly after the story was posted but several hours before the broadcast aired, Goline told "Entertainment Tonight" that she was not the person with whom they had been corresponding, a person with direct knowledge of the conversation told The Associated Press. That account was confirmed by another person close to Jolie.
"'Entertainment Tonight' was told before the broadcast that their information came from an impostor," said the second person. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
The people said there were several conversations Friday, by e-mail, text message and telephone, between Goline and "Entertainment Tonight." Meanwhile, the story was quickly challenged by several other celebrity news outlets.
The TV show stood by its story Friday night, with host Mary Hart saying on the air, "Just this morning, a source who says she was inside the delivery room tells us yes, the babies were born and yes, mother and babies are fine."
Later that night, the manager of Jolie's partner, Brad Pitt, told AP that the babies had not been born.
The show said in a statement Wednesday that it first learned of an impostor from a letter from Jolie's attorney Monday — three days after the broadcast.
"'Entertainment Tonight' takes this very seriously and is, of course, concerned that the show may have been victimized by someone allegedly posing as a member of Ms. Jolie's team," the statement said. "We are actively investigating the matter and are reaching out to law enforcement agencies."
The show has not mentioned the story on the air since the initial report, and the story has been deleted from its Web site.
The 27-year-old program is the top-rated entertainment newsmagazine on television, with an average nightly audience of 6.6 million viewers, more than double any competitors. The twins, who Jolie says are due in August, are one of the biggest stories of the year in celebrity journalism, with their first photographs expected to fetch at least $10 million. (The first pictures of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt reportedly fetched a $4 million donation to charity from People magazine.)
The mystery of who was sending the e-mail fit perfectly into the world of celebrity gossip, in which rumor and thirdhand sources coalesce into "facts" at the speed of the Internet. Even before the "Entertainment Tonight" report, there were international rumors of the twins' birth, possibly started by an OK! magazine story that did not report the babies were born, but speculated on possible names.
According to an "ET" executive, the report of the twins' birth began with Sharlette Hambrick, an "ET" producer. Hambrick told the show that she had obtained a BlackBerry e-mail address for Goline from a contact at CNN, according to the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
According to e-mails provided to AP by the show, Hambrick sent a message to the BlackBerry address asking for confirmation of "reports swirling" that Jolie had given birth.
The reply came back: "Yes she did. I was actually in the room with her. They are doing fine and so is mom."
Goline has never had a BlackBerry e-mail account, one of the people with knowledge of the exchange said. Hambrick referred a call from The Associated Press to the show's public relations representative.
Shortly after "Entertainment Tonight" posted the story, Hambrick called the real Goline seeking more details, and Goline told her verbally and through text messages that Hambrick had been dealing with an impostor, the people with knowledge of the exchange said.
E-mails obtained by AP show that Hambrick sent a message to Goline's real e-mail address showing the exchange with the impostor, asking "Are you saying this is now not your e-mail address? That you did not send me these e-mails?"
Goline responded: "This is not my e-mail."