The Times apologizes over article on rapper
By James Rainey
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
11:26 PM PDT, March 26, 2008
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."
Times Editor Russ Stanton announced that the newspaper would launch an internal review of the documents and the reporting surrounding the story. Stanton said he took the criticisms of the March 17 report "very seriously."
"We published this story with the sincere belief that the documents were genuine, but our good intentions are beside the point," Stanton said in a statement.
"The bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used. We apologize both to our readers and to those referenced in the documents and, as a result, in the story. We are continuing to investigate this matter and will fulfill our journalistic responsibility for critical self-examination."
The story first appeared March 17 on latimes.com under the headline "An Attack on Tupac Shakur Launched a Hip-Hop War." The article described a Nov. 30, 1994, ambush at Quad Recording Studios in New York, where the rap singer was pistol-whipped and shot several times by three men. No one has been charged in the crime, but before his death two years later, Shakur said repeatedly that he suspected allies of rap impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs.
The assault touched off a bicoastal war between Shakur and fellow adherents of West Coast rap and their East Coast rivals, most famously represented by Christopher Wallace, better known as Notorious B.I.G. Both Shakur and Wallace ultimately died violently.
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.
The story provoked vehement denials from lawyers for Combs and Rosemond, both before and after publication.
Rosemond said in a statement Wednesday that the Times article created "a potentially violent climate in the hip-hop community." His attorney, Marc Lichtman, added: "I would suggest to Mr. Philips and his editors that they immediately print an apology and take out their checkbooks -- or brace themselves for an epic lawsuit."
Although The Times has not identified the source of the purported FBI reports, The Smoking Gun (www.the smokinggun.com) asserted that the documents were forged by Sabatino. The website identified him as a convicted con man with a history of elaborate fantasies designed to exaggerate his place in the rap music firmament. He is currently in federal prison on fraud charges.
"The Times appears to have been hoaxed by an imprisoned con man and accomplished document forger, an audacious swindler who has created a fantasy world in which he managed hip-hop luminaries," the Smoking Gun reported.
Combs' lawyer Howard Weitzman, in a letter to Times Publisher David Hiller, called the story inaccurate. He expanded an earlier demand for a retraction and said he believed that The Times' conduct met the legal standard for "actual malice," which would allow a public figure such as Combs to obtain damages in a libel suit.
The purported FBI reports were filed by Sabatino with a federal court in Miami four months ago in connection with a lawsuit against Combs in which he claimed he was never paid for rap recordings in which he said he was involved. Sabatino, 31, said he had obtained the documents to help him prepare his defense in a criminal case against him in 2002, according to the Smoking Gun.
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.
At the sentencing, the younger Sabatino told the judge that he had been battling a "demon for a very long time" and that his motivation for committing fraud was "to make attention to myself," according to another court document posted by the website. The headline on the Smoking Gun story, over a picture of the picture of the portly Sabatino: "Big Phat Liar."
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 first significant tip that led to the Shakur story came nearly a year ago, Philips said. He conducted interviews and reported the story in the interim, then focused on the piece more intensively beginning in January.
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.
Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute, said he would not pass judgment on The Times' editing process.
"But any time you have a substantive investigative project you need multiple levels of quality control," Steele said. "You need contrarians within the organization who are going to be very skeptical."
The editor of Smoking Gun, Bill Bastone, who shepherded the website's critique, had been an acquaintance of Philips before the Shakur investigation. The two met not long ago for lunch, discussing their mutual passion for investigative reporting and other matters.
Bastone knew The Times would publish a story related to the attack on Shakur, and he said he had immediate misgivings when he saw the piece last week.
He said he called Philips to say "things just don't feel right about this."
Bastone said he "took no joy in doing this," adding, "We greatly respect your paper and Chuck and Chuck's work. . . . But I think what happened here is that this guy Sabatino is a master con man, and they got caught up with him."