'LA Times' Investigates Its False Tupac Story
NEAL CONAN, host:
Last week, the Los Angeles Times Web site ran an article by Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter about an assault on Tupac Shakur in 1994 that touched off a war between East and West Coast rappers.
Philips cited newly discovered FBI records obtained by the Los Angeles Times and blamed the attack on associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs. Now it turns out those documents were probably fakes.
Last night, the Los Angeles Times apologized for the article, and the paper's editor announced an internal investigation. You can find a link to the original article and to the newspaper's apology on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And joining us now to talk about this story is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, with us from our bureau in New York.
David, always nice to have you on the program.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: How are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: And tell us a little bit about this story. The documents they were cited in the story as a - were they authenticated?
FOLKENFLIK: This is a miserable thing for any journalist. These were documents called the 302s, purportedly revealing what an informant had told the FBI involving - a series of events involving Tupac Shakur, particularly his shooting in 1994. As you may recall, he survived that…
FOLKENFLIK: …and then died in another shooting about a year and a half later.
It's centered on two guys - one of whom was a guy named James Sabatino, who were said to be these associates of Combs sort of aspiring producers who wanted to curry favor with Combs. And the idea as reflected in the article by Chuck Philips was that Combs had known about the attack in advance, that it was going to be an attempt to punish and send a message to Shakur that he couldn't mess with Combs. He had to sort of collaborate with him in that day. It had been an intended beating that went awry when Shakur pulled his own gun.
The problem is, as the Smoking Gun seemed to show is that - part of the documents that were central to this seemed not to be done very professionally - a lot of misspellings, a lot of formulations that their FBI sources, some of whom were named, and current and former officials said did not comport with the way the FBI filled out their own records.
CONAN: Apparently, these documents were also typewritten, and the FBI, I don't think, has used typewriters for 30 years.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that certainly what the smokinggun.com says in contact with a couple of folks who'd document authentication, and they say that the way in which the misspellings would have been caught by computer programs, the overstrikings would not be visible in a computer program. It had to be a typewriter.
And if indeed, no agents at the FBI used typewriters that would seem to cast great doubt. You know, in other ways, as well, Sabatino was a guy who, at the time of the early to mid-'90s, would have been in his, sort of, mid to late teens. He would have been an unlikely guy, a white teenager from the suburbs to have participated in the overwhelmingly black world that this was set in. You know, in the smoking gun.com article, they expressed extreme skepticism that this guy could have been on - in there without having somehow attracted attention. And he turns out to be Sabatino, a serial con man, a felon behind bars on a number of federal fraud and other related charges, who has repeatedly tried to invent a role for himself in the rap world that he doesn't seem to hold.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about a story in the Los Angeles Times which was been forced to retract and apologize for.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And David, you would think in the afterglow of Rathergate documents, well, you'd try to get them authenticated?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, Philips has said last night to his own folks that he had tried to reach out to the, I believe, the U.S. Attorney's office in New York where the supposed 302 documents were first theoretically obtained and that he had shown it to a former unnamed FBI agent who said that it looked plausible to him.
It's hard to know. It's - I got to say, the folks from smokinggun.com traffic in documents all the time, and they said the founder of Smoking Gun said yesterday to us that, you know, this smelled bad within about 15 seconds of looking at the first page of the very first document that the Times posted online.
This is the crux of the story. I mean, it seems as those close reading of Philips' would-be expose suggests both that the documents and that the person that the documents are describing are all based on the same person - James Sabatino.
It seems as though there was a circular confirmation. The documents provided support for the person and the person provides support for the documents. It appears to have emerged from one in the same source, and that is exactly the dilemma as you suggest that Dan Rather and his producers fell into with the Memogate issue when they were covering questions about President Bush's military service record during the Vietnam era.
CONAN: Now, this can't be good news for Russ Stanton, who is the editor of Los Angeles Times. He just started there.
FOLKENFLIK: A terrible way to start your job. You know, he had been over the online world, and this series made its debut on the LATimes.com Web site, I believe, on March 16th but did not, interestingly, appear in the next day's newspaper. It appeared in slightly more compressed form the day after that.
So you wonder if there was a reason for that, whether there was push back, or whether this was part of sort of a Web-first strategy. But, you know, the lawyer for Sean Combs instantly denounced it. I spoke to a lawyer for one of the other people described as an associate of Combs who was involved in planning and orchestrating the attack. And this lawyer told me yesterday that he had warned the Times and Philips very directly before the publication of the story that it wasn't true. That it simply was out of thin air. And he said this is just wrong, you can't do it. And they went ahead.
CONAN: Does Chuck Philips, again, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has he named his source who duped him?
FOLKENFLIK: He hasn't. The Times has said, you know, I just got off the phone literally minutes ago with the chief spokeswoman for the L.A. Times, Nancy Sullivan. She says that this constitutes a retraction of the article. It's a full apology from Stanton, from the editor who edited the project, as well as Mr. Philips himself. And they have said that they're having a full internal investigation into what went wrong.
My guess is it would suggest a full accounting, but that they're not going to have this done in drips and drabs, that they want to present the fullest account they can of what they did right and what they did wrong.
Philips has covered the hip-hop world for years for the Times. He seems sort of notable, as you say a Pulitzer winner. He's also come under some criticism, some who are, you know, steeped in the world of rap say that he's - pushed a little too far on what his sources are telling him in recounting these sort of astonishing stories of character and personality in conflict, sometimes deadly conflict.
CONAN: Now, this is not, in recent months, the first time this has happened in the Los Angeles Times. Back in October 2006, they published an article headlined, "Clemens Named in Drug Affidavit," not just Roger Clemens, but I think, five or six other Major League Baseball players supposedly named in the affidavit by another baseball player named Jason Grimsley. And it turned out this kind of got lost in all of the fuss about the Mitchell Report, but it turned out those names were wrong.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. A bunch of those names were wrong. Many of whom did surface in the Mitchell Report. Some…
CONAN: But were not named in the Grimsley affidavit, and…
FOLKENFLIK: Absolutely right. The Times, you know, wrote a front-page story acknowledging this, along with the corrections to its credit. The newspaper didn't simply relied on, you know, 90 words deep - very deep inside the papers, a correction it said on the front page that have gotten this wrong.
On the other hand, the Times said that it would do a thorough look at how it had gotten this wrong, how its sources had either gotten this wrong or mislead them, and promised to share that with the public.
And I did do an archived review, and I can't find it since that surfaced, that the full affidavit was disclosed back in December, that the Times has done any sharing with the public of how it got that wrong too.
You know, that was a really bright and shiny black eye at the time. It may be (unintelligible) for that to go away, or it may have, you know, gotten lost in the coverage of the Mitchell Report, in the congressional hearings, and related matters. But, you know, that's still out there as well, and so, you know, you would like to think that the Times wouldn't allow this latest by Philips to evaporate.
CONAN: Well, maybe it'll come out - the same explanation will come out at the same time they explained what went wrong with the Tupac Shakur report.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you never know.
CONAN: David Folkenflik, thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, joined us from our bureau in New York.
Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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