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West Coast Rathergate: LA Times admits fake documents fiasco

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By Michelle Malkin  •  March 27, 2008 05:28 AM

ratherkinkos.jpg Yesterday afternoon, I noted that the LA Times was launching an internal investigation into “the authenticity of documents used in a story last week asserting that the newspaper had uncovered new evidence implicating associates of rap impresario Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs in a bloody 1994 assault on hip-hop superstar Tupac Shakur.” Turns out the “new evidence”–so-called “FBI documents”–were actually pathetic, typewritten, misspelled bogus records conjured up by an attention-seeking, pathologically lying nutball–and the LATimes has now ‘fessed up and apologized. (Hat tip – Patterico.)

But you know, the LATimes employs professionals backed up by layers and layers and layers of editorial fact-checking. As opposed to blogs, which are, in the words of an LA Times columnist, hokum-spreading “crab grass.”

I digress.

Late Wednesday night on the West Coast, at 11:26 Pacific Time, the LA Times admitted it was hoaxed:

A Los Angeles Times story about a brutal 1994 attack on rap superstar Tupac Shakur was partially based on documents that appear to have been fabricated, the reporter and editor responsible for the story said Wednesday.

Reporter Chuck Philips and his supervisor, Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin, issued statements of apology Wednesday afternoon. The statements came after The Times took withering criticism for the Shakur article, which appeared on latimes.com last week and two days later in the paper’s Calendar section.

The criticism came first from The Smoking Gun website, which said the newspaper had been the victim of a hoax, and then from subjects of the story, who said they had been defamed.

“In relying on documents that I now believe were fake, I failed to do my job,” Philips said in a statement Wednesday. “I’m sorry.”In his statement, Duvoisin added: “We should not have let ourselves be fooled. That we were is as much my fault as Chuck’s. I deeply regret that we let our readers down.”

…The Times story said the paper had obtained “FBI records” in which a confidential informant accused two men of helping to set up the attack on Shakur — James Rosemond, a prominent rap talent manager, and James Sabatino, identified in the story as a promoter. The story said the two allegedly wanted to curry favor with Combs and believed Shakur had disrespected them.

The purported FBI records are the documents Philips and Duvoisin now believe were faked.

As noted, the LATimes’s internal probe was prompted by The Smoking Gun website’s report maintaining that the paper was hoaxed by Sabatino, who supplied the bogus FBI docs. Sabatino, according to TSG, “has long sought to insinuate himself, after the fact, in a series of important hip-hop events, from Shakur’s shooting to the murder of The Notorious B.I.G.. In fact, however, Sabatino was little more than a rap devotee, a wildly impulsive, overweight white kid from Florida whose own father once described him in a letter to a federal judge as ‘a disturbed young man who needed attention like a drug.’”

The reporter, Chuck Philips, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. But he wasn’t able to smell the swindle:

Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, said he believed in the authenticity of the documents in part because they had been filed in court. But the Smoking Gun’s sharply critical review said The Times had overlooked numerous misspellings and unusual acronyms and redactions that could have cast doubt on the documents’ authenticity.

Moreover, the documents appeared to have been prepared on a typewriter, the Smoking Gun account noted, adding that a former FBI supervisor estimated that the bureau ceased using typewriters about 30 years ago. The website said its reporters had learned that the documents could not be found in an FBI database.

The website also described unexplained coincidences that made it appear Sabatino had composed the documents from prison. The Smoking Gun showed that Sabatino had filed court papers on his own behalf that had “obvious similarities” in typography and “remarkably similar spelling deficiencies” to those in the purported FBI documents.

The Smoking Gun used a report from Sabatino’s sentencing in 2003 for fraud and identity theft to suggest that his history of lying began in childhood. When the boy’s mother left home at 11, he told a teacher that his mother had died in an accident, rather than acknowledge the truth, said his father, Peter Sabatino, according to the website. It posted what it said was a letter that the father wrote to the judge.

How did Philips attempt to verify the documents supplied to him? Why, he had “heard” many of the same details from other unnamed sources! And it sounded like something in Tupac Shakur’s lyrics. So it all must have been true. Apparently, since he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, the same layers and layers and layers of fact-checking applied to other stories didn’t apply to his:

Philips said in an interview that he had believed the documents were legitimate because, in the reporting he had already done on the story, he had heard many of the same details.

He said a source had led him to three prison inmates who purportedly carried out the attack on Shakur. One of those inmates implicated the planners of the attack and another implied who was involved, Philips said. Two others who said they witnessed the attack corroborated portions of the scenario described in the article, he said. None of the sources were named in the story.

Philips also said the events the sources described fit with previous accounts in the media and even in Shakur’s songs.

Still, Philips said he wished he had done more.

Philips said he sought to check the authenticity of the documents with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, which had handled the investigation of the attack on Shakur, and with a retired FBI agent, but did not directly ask the FBI about them. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, while the former FBI agent said the documents appeared legitimate, Philips said.

His statement said he “approached this article the same way I’ve approached every article I’ve ever written: in pursuit of the truth. I now believe the truth here is that I got duped. For this, I take full responsibility and I apologize.”

Philips has spent years digging into the rap music business and had won a reputation as a dogged streetwise reporter. He and Times reporter Michael Hiltzik shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for beat reporting for their accounts of entertainment industry corruption, including illegal detoxification programs for celebrities. Duvoisin has overseen many of The Times’ most notable investigative projects in recent years.

..,.The story was reviewed by Duvoisin and two editors on the copy desk. Other investigative stories published by The Times in recent years have in some cases received the scrutiny of at least one more editor and often of the managing editor or editor of the newspaper. The Shakur piece did not receive that many layers of review.

Philips’ Pulitzer Prize-winning partner Hiltzik, by the way, is the sock puppeteer who was smoked out by LA Times watchdog Patterico.

Another one of those damned blogs doing the fact-checking the MSM doesn’t have the time or inclination to do.

Patterico notes that the LA Times’ admission should spur a deeper investigation: “I think the paper needs to take a broader look at Philips’s work.” Particularly his association with rap criminal Suge Knight. He points to this 2005 piece from Jan Golab at Front Page (damn those Internet sites again!) raising questions about Philips’ coverage:

Chuck Philips, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his music business reporting in 1999, has covered Death Row Records since the early ‘90’s. He has long been known for obtaining scoops and exclusive interviews for The Times due to his unmatched access to Suge Knight. Some critics have characterized him as Suge’s apologist and as a reporter corrupted by access. Others speculate there may be more to it than that. One key witness at the Biggie civil trial, Death Row insider Kevin Hackie, who identified David Mack as attending Death Row functions, also stated in a pre-trial deposition that “Chuck Philips was frequently at Death Row functions and received payments from Death Row Records.” Hackie backed off of this statement at trial, but he also tried to back away from everything he had told investigators, stating, convincingly, that “I’m in fear for my life.” Asked what he feared, Hackie stated: “Retribution by the Bloods, the Los Angeles Police Department and associates of Death Row Records.”

More here and here.

Not to be schadenfreude-listic, but I want to reprint the quote I linked up top from fretful LA Times columnist, David Lazarus, who bemoaned the rise of Internet news sources and blogs in December:

“…blogs will continue sprouting like crab grass throughout the electronic ether. Soon, the line separating quality journalism from utter hokum will be too blurry to discern.”

The LA Times has no monopoly on “quality journalism.” Perhaps the hokum-spreading newspaper will think twice about printing Internet-bashing screeds from its stable of arrogant employees. Members of the “crab grass” New Media help draw the bright lines that sloppy members of the old media have blurred. Next time this happens, try:

“Thank you.”

***

For some fascinating reading, check out Philips’ online live chat with readers about his now-discredited piece that took place on March 18. Don’t know if the LATimes will yank the transcript, but right now it’s still up here. He tells readers that he had planned to come out with two more stories on the subject before the end of the year. Wonder what fake documents those would have relied on. Excerpt from the transcript:

…Chuck Philips: hi everybody. thanks for taking the time to read the story.

mj: How confident are you that the reporting will stand up against any libel challenges by those implicated?

Chuck Philips: hi mj. i am very confident that i have reported accurately what my sources said. and i feel confident that they know what happened. the documents supported what i learned. i believe what i wrote can withstand any legal challenge.

…TupacLivesOn7: Anyone think tupac is still alive?

Chuck Philips: no. my reporting does not involve conspiracy theories. i follow the facts wherever they lead me. i interview individuals who have intimate knowledge of what happened – many of whom have never spoken to police. i look for documents to support my investigation. i don’t rush things into print. i don’t stretch my stories to conform to theories. i spend a long time developing them until i get them right

Chuck Philips: to 221isaturk, i hope to publish at least 2 more related stories before the year ends

…MykalRoze: Chuck, why wasn’t the story printed in the paper? I read that a shorter version of it might be printed, but it would be nice to be able to have a copy on newsprint, just as I have newspaper copies of your previous Tupac stories.

Chuck Philips: to mykalroze, my editor marc duvoisin came up with the idea to publish this investigative report on the web first to reach all of you hiphop fans over the world – people who understand who this artist means – and we wanted to present in a comprehensive way with visuals, audio, lyrics, and extensive photos. tomorrow, we plan to publish a slightly shorter version of the story in the calendar section. thanks for reading it and for your questions.

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