On one hand, Chuck Philips has a Pulitzer Prize, winning the coveted journalism award in 1999 for beat reporting. On the other hand, many believe the Los Angeles Times writer has brought the veracity of his work into question with two bombshell hip-hop stories — the first in 2002, reporting that the Notorious B.I.G. personally offered his gun to the Crip gang member who murdered Tupac Shakur, and on Monday, Philips claimed that Biggie and Sean “Diddy” Combs were aware of the 1994 plot to ambush Shakur the night he was shot and wounded as he entered Quad Studios.
Those two articles sparked considerable controversy. His allegations are at times hard to believe, and he has drawn criticism for largely citing unnamed sources. And many question why an older white man is the one pursuing the case of two murdered black hip-hip icons.
But Philips, for his efforts, also receives praise for his devotion to the case, when many believe police seem less interested each year. Readers lavish him with kind words for bringing light to two of the darkest moments in hip-hop history. Then there’s his own appreciation for black culture: Philips cites Miles Davis as one of his favorite interviews, recognizes Dr. Dre’s talents, and has a love for ’70s funk.
It’s certainly a complex beat he chases, often prone to failure, he said. And in the end, he leaves it up to his gut instincts that the people he talks to are telling him the truth. It could make him right — or it could make him horribly wrong in the end. Who knows for sure? But Philips stands by his methods.
Here, Philips talks to MTV News about his philosophy on using anonymous sources, when to trust stories — no matter how outrageous the claims may be — and why he keeps trying to figure out this story.
On sourcing: Philips often uses anonymous sources, referencing nothing about a source’s physical description and rarely citing just how close the source is to the story. His reliance on FBI-informant information in his most recent story leads many to question how he could trust someone who is “snitching.” He said he has to protect his sources from death and that even a slight clue could ID them.
“When you talk to people who are involved with the crime, which is what I do, they’re either directly involved or peripherally involved,” Philips explained. “Probably the farthest I’ve ever gotten is the best friend of the guy that was involved, and was told everything. … In this one, and in many other stories, I’ve had direct contact with people who I believe are the criminals. And the deal I work out with them, I don’t go with ’the guy with green eyes and he’s from Brooklyn.’ I don’t think that matters at all. It doesn’t help identify the individual. But these qualifiers to me, the issue is, do you have the right source? I don’t think it leads to more trust. Because it doesn’t matter where he lived or what position he had. I think the problem with that is that the people who would like to kill them, it matters very much. But when you’re writing about a murder, some of the people who talked to me would be killed if they were identified in any way. Frankly, no one has any idea but their family members that they’re talking to me. Now I’m at the point where I can give my old stories to the people I approach and say, ’This is how I write, and this is how it will happen. I’ve never burned anybody, and I’m not gonna burn you.’ And most people still won’t talk to you. But in this case, I was a lot luckier than that.”
Outlandish allegations: Some critics say Philips is being taken for a ride by his informants. Philips, however, said he triple-checks his stories through corroboration.
“I often get approached by a lot of people, and then I talk to a lot of people who I thought knew someone and I find out they’re lying,” Philips said. “It takes a lot of time to develop. I’m not gonna write it just because someone says it. I have to, in my mind, have double or triple sourcing on something and people who hadn’t spoken to each other and I can assure myself that they haven’t spoken to each other. Because I’ve had two people try to set me up. … I would catch them. But if you have three, you never get tripped up. I learned that writing about the music business, because I’d write about big deals that were coming out or a firing that would happen five days before it happened. And you had to be right about that sh–, because those guys would sue your ass. But in this case, I don’t write anything until I feel it’s confident, it’s true. I know all kinds of stuff I don’t write about. But then if I know that it’s true, I’m gonna write about it. But I never tell anybody what it is, because it’s unfair if it’s not true. And there are people that will lie to you. Same thing happens in the music business, when I wrote about that. Same thing happened in the government. The police lie to you all the time. Police write up documents that are completely false, and you can print that. As a journalist, if they write up a police report that’s false, you can put that on the front page of the newspaper and not be sued, because it’s a police document.
“People are talking about that document,” Philips added. “I had all of the information before I got the FBI document. [Editor’s note: Philips obtained FBI records cited in Monday’s story that said an informant told authorities in 2002 that Jimmy Rosemond and James Sabatino set up Shakur.] And when I got the FBI document, that was really like frosting on the cake for me. Because in this document, by somebody who I had never spoke to, I did speak to them eventually before the story ran, but who I didn’t know or speak to, he said almost the same thing that I found out. So for me, it’s just another resource, but for everybody who reads it, ’Oh, it has to be true. The FBI is sourcing it.’ ”
His motivation: Is he doing it for fame? Is he cooking up stories to stir the pot? There are plenty in the hip-hop community who just don’t understand Philips’ pursuit. He said he’s been covering the case because it’s one of the most important entertainment stories of the past 50 years and it simply interests him.
“I’ve written a lot abut this story because it fascinates me,” Philips said. “I’ve written about doctors, politicians, music executives … all these kinds of stories. So why would I make up only this story? I’ve gotten over it. At first it was shocking to me when people would say that, but they just don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s their prerogative.
“I’m always surprised that young black writers have criticized me sometimes, and they don’t go do it,” he said of other reporters who aren’t willing to tackle the story. “If you’re gonna criticize me, go do it. You’ll have a lot easier time moving around than I will. Why aren’t you out there doing it? I actually don’t understand that. But frankly I’m glad nobody else is. You often need a lot of time to go the long way. And then you have to get your gumption back up, to say, ’All right, f— it,’ when you fail and say, ’OK, this isn’t it. Now I have to go try these other leads.’ It’s like a detective, in a sense.”