In a stunning turnaround, the Los Angeles Times printed a lengthy apology on Thursday (March 27) for its recent story on the 1994 attack on Tupac Shakur. Less than a day after TheSmokingGun.com reported that some of the documents used by Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter Chuck Philips to corroborate his bombshell story were faked by a notorious forger, the Times admitted that the March 17 piece was "partially based on documents that appear to have been fabricated." Both Philips and his supervisor, Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin, issued statements of apology Wednesday afternoon for the story, which is reportedly the most-read item on the Times Web site this year, with more than 1 million hits.
"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." 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." Also, Times Editor Russ Stanton announced that the paper would launch an internal review of the documents and the reporting surrounding the story, and that he took the criticisms of the article "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."
After the exposure of the seemingly phony documents, which the Smoking Gun said were dummied up by a small-time convicted forger and wannabe hip-hop player named James Sabatino, the Times now believes the "FBI records" cited by Philips in his controversial story were indeed faked. In the piece, Philips purported that rap manager Jimmy Rosemond and another promoter, identified as Sabatino, were behind the November 1994 ambush shooting of Shakur at a New York recording studio and that they had the rap star shot to earn points with Bad Boy Records boss Sean "Diddy" Combs.
Both Combs and Rosemond vehemently denied any involvement in the plot before and after the story's publication. In a letter to Times Publisher David Hiller, Combs' lawyer Howard Weitzman called the story inaccurate, according to the paper's mea culpa. Weitzman also expanded on his earlier demand for a retraction, adding that he believed the article met the legal standard for "actual malice," which means Combs would be able to sue for libel. Rosemond's lawyer has also threatened to file suit over the piece.
Weitzman issued a statement on the matter late Thursday afternoon that reads: "The Los Angeles Times' apology is, at best, a first step, but it doesn't undo the false and defamatory nature of the story, or the suspicion and innuendo that Mr. Combs has had to endure due to these untruthful allegations and the irresponsible conduct of this particular reporter. We have nothing further to say at this time."
The Times has not identified the supplier of the purported FBI reports, though the Smoking Gun claimed that they were cooked up by Sabatino — currently in federal prison on fraud charges — as part of a lawsuit against Combs over an alleged debt owed to Sabatino for some audio and video recordings he alleges he made for the Notorious B.I.G. The Times said Philips believed the authenticity of the documents in part because they had been filed in court, noting that the close inspection by the Smoking Gun uncovered obvious misspellings and inconsistencies with FBI protocol that "could have cast doubt on the documents' authenticity." The paper also mentioned that Philips said in an interview following the publication that he believed the documents were legitimate because in the reporting he'd already done on the story he'd heard many of the same details before. Similarly, Philips defended his reporting methods and use of anonymous sources in an interview with MTV News shortly after the story's publication.
According to the paper, Philips said that "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. Two others who said they witnessed the attack corroborated portions of the scenario described in the article." None of the sources were named in the story. The reporter also said the events the unnamed sources described fit with previous media accounts and even some lyrics to Shakur's songs, but still, "Philips said he wished he had done more."
Oddly, the prize-winning journalist admitted that he tried 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." While the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment, Philips said the former FBI agent said the documents appeared legitimate. Philips, whose story was reviewed by Duvoisin and two editors on the copy desk, said in his apology that 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."
After the first significant tip in the Shakur story came in nearly a year ago, Philips began conducting interviews and reporting on the piece, picking up the pace in January. But, unlike other investigative stories published recently by the paper, which were read by at least one more editor and often by the managing editor or editor of the newspaper, the Times said the Shakur story did not receive that many levels of review.
In another twist, the Times reported that the editor of the Smoking Gun, Bill Bastone, was an acquaintance of Philips' before the Shakur investigation. The two met not long ago for lunch, during which they discussed their "mutual passion for investigative reporting and other matters." Bastone knew Philips was working on the Shakur story and said he had "immediate misgivings" when he saw the piece last week. According to the paper, Bastone said he called Philips to say, "Things just don't feel right about this."
[This story was originally published at 8:58 a.m. ET on 3.27.2008]