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A respected major daily newspaper is under attack for relying on seemingly fake documents for a big expose. Thesmokinggun.com says the Los Angeles Times was duped by a self-aggrandizing con man. The L.A. Times has apologized for the article and is investigating its own investigative report on the shooting of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The Los Angeles Times story was trying to explain a celebrity grudge match that ended in the deaths of the biggest names in hip hop. In 1994, Shakur was beaten and shot repeatedly in the lobby of a New York City studio. He survived that incident and blamed rivals Biggie Smalls and Sean Combs. In a rap song, Shakur accused Combs - also know as Diddy and Puffy.

(Soundbite of song, "Against all odds")

Mr. TUPAC SHAKUR (Rapper): (Singing) Lets be honest. You a punk or you would see me (unintelligible) remember that shit you said in Vibe about me being a thug? You can tell the people you roll with whatever you want. But you and I know what's going on.

FOLKENFLIK: Sean Combs has consistently denied any involvement, but in a major expose last week, Chuck Phillips of the Los Angeles Times reported that in fact he did know about the plan to assault Shakur. Phillips said the plan was orchestrated by Combs hanger-ons, including one named Jimmy Sabatino.

Mr. CHUCK PHILLIPS (Los Angeles Times): They were guys that were in the Brooklyn criminal underground. And they were moving into the rap world.

FOLKENFLIK: Phillips was interviewed last week by NPR's Allison Stewart on the Bryant Park Project.

ALISON STEWART: How'd the information come to you that Combs and Biggie knew this attack was planned before it happened?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I - like I said, I have talked to people that I believe were involved in the orchestration of this attack, and I have had contact with the assailants themselves. And I believe that Sabatino himself told Puffy - or Combs, Sean Combs, whatever you call him.

FOLKENFLIK: His reporting also heavily relied on FBI documents, but thesmokinggun.com published a long analysis yesterday casting doubt on their authenticity.

Mr. BILL BASTONE (The Smoking Gun): Honestly, it was the first 15 seconds of the first page didn't look right to me.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Smoking Gun founder Bill Bastone, who specializes in reporting based on law enforcement records.

Mr. BASTONE: The look was wrong. The type face - it was riddled with the most incredible spelling errors. The grammar was atrocious. And that's not even taking into account what they said. What they said in the story, the information itself was preposterous.

FOLKENFLIK: The story of Jimmy Sabatino does seem fantastic on its face. He was a white suburban kid, but supposedly a player in an overwhelmingly black industry. The alternative weekly Miami New Times profiled him as an accomplished liar and scam artist, and that was back in 1999.

Right now Sabatino is in prison for fraud and other felonies. Right after the L.A. Times investigation was published last week, the online publication HipHopDX and thesmokinggun.com raised serious questions. Once again, Bill Bastone.

Mr. BASTONE: If a con man surfaces with outlandish claims in FBI reports, none of which can be verified, to me that's like every red siren around you should be going off.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times said it spent six months investigating the story, but it took The Smoking Gun only a few days to produce a strong challenge to the newspaper's journalism.

No one from the L.A. Times would speak on tape for this story, but Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan says, quote, "We are taking this very seriously and have begun our own investigation."

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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