A Los Angeles Times story published in March 2008 that purported to have new information about a 1994 attack that helped launch a bloody bicoastal war among high-profile rappers was found to be based on faked FBI documents and questionable sources, embarrassing the newspaper as it retracted and apologized for the story.
The story, headlined “An Attack on Tupac Shakur Launched a Hip-Hop War,” appeared on the newspaper’s Web site on March 17, 2008 and in a shorter version in the print edition March 19. It revisited a Nov. 30, 1994, ambush at a recording studio in New York where Shakur was beaten and shot several times by three men. No one has ever been charged in the crime, but Shakur later said he suspected allies of rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs were responsible. According to the Times, the assault sparked a war between Shakur and fellow West Coast rappers and their East Coast rivals, ultimately resulting in the shooting deaths of Shakur in 1996 and East Coast rapper Christopher Wallace, better known as Notorious B.I.G., in 1997.
The March 17 Times story said the paper had obtained “FBI records,” summaries of interviews with a confidential informant who accused associates of Combs of helping to set up the attack on Shakur. The story cited several unnamed sources who corroborated the information in the documents.
On April 7, the Times reported that it had concluded that the FBI documents were fabricated and that other sources the story relied on did not support the assertions that three associates of Combs – James Rosemond, Jacques Agnant, and James Sabatino – had arranged the assault after Shakur had rejected an offer to sign with Combs’ record label, Bad Boy Records.
“The Times specifically retracts all statements in the article, and in its related publications, that state or suggest in any way that Rosemond, Agnant and Sabatino orchestrated or played any role in the assault on Shakur,” the Times said April 7, continuing, “To the extent these publications could be interpreted as creating the impression that Combs was involved in arranging the attack, The Times wishes to correct that misimpression, which was neither stated in the article nor intended. ... Any statements or implications suggesting that Combs was given advance knowledge of the assault on Shakur, or played any role in it, are specifically retracted.”
On March 27 the Times reported in a front-page apology that it had received “withering criticism” for the March 17 story, and Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin and reporter Chuck Philips, who won a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on corruption in the entertainment industry, both issued statements of apology.
The Times’ April 7 and March 27 stories about the apology and retraction are available online at http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-quadretraction7apr07,0,3600312.story. The original March 17 story was removed from the newspaper’s Web site on April 7.
The “withering criticism” came in the form of a 5,000-word story on the Web site The Smoking Gun questioning the documents the Times had used in reporting the story, which were posted on latimes.com, as well as the veracity of the documents’ apparent source, Sabatino, a “con-man” currently serving a federal prison sentence for fraud.
The Smoking Gun described Sabatino, 31, as an “accomplished document forger, an audacious swindler who has created a fantasy world in which he managed hip-hop luminaries [and] conducted business” with famous rappers and industry insiders during the 1990s.
The Web site said Sabatino had filed the FBI documents, dubbed “302s” for the number on the top of the form on which they are prepared, with the U.S. District Court in Miami as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Combs for an alleged “soured business deal.”
However, The Smoking Gun reported that the forms do not appear anywhere on the FBI’s computerized Automated Case Support database. They were distributed by Sabatino himself, who claimed that they were provided to him during the discovery phase of a 2002 criminal case. According to The Smoking Gun, a federal law enforcement official who was involved in the 2002 case said that the Secret Service had headed the investigation and the FBI had no role in the case.
Moreover, The Smoking Gun reported that the documents appear to have been prepared on a typewriter, technology it said the agency has not used in 30 years. The Smoking Gun reported that Sabatino, like other inmates at all Bureau of Prisons facilities, has access to photocopying machines, office supplies, and typewriters, according to the bureau’s 2008 Legal Resource Guide, which says inmates must be permitted “a reasonable amount of time … to conduct their own legal research and to prepare legal documents.”
The Web site pointed out spelling and grammatical errors as well as the use of unusual acronyms that appeared on Sabatino’s “302s” which were inconsistent with standard FBI procedure. The Smoking Gun said “most telling” were “obvious similarities (type size, font, line spacing, individual character renderings)” between the “302s” from the Times story and other court filings created by Sabatino while he has been incarcerated.
The Smoking Gun said both the “302s” and Sabatino’s court filings show similar “spelling deficiencies.” The word “making” appears as “makeing” and the word “during” appears as “durring” in both the “302s” and Sabatino’s pro se court pleadings, The Smoking Gun reported. The Smoking Gun report is available at http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2008/0325081sabatino1.html.
The Times reported April 7 that its investigation concluded that “Sabatino fabricated the FBI reports and concocted his role in the assault as well as his supposed relationships with Combs, Rosemond and Agnant.”
On April 7 the Times also said it “was mistaken in reporting that Rosemond has served prison time for drug dealing and was convicted in 1996 of drug offenses,” specifically retracting the statements. The Smoking Gun had not challenged the reporting on Rosemond’s criminal history.
Philips’ statement of apology said “In relying on documents that I now believe were fake, I failed to do my job.” Duvoisin’s statement said, “I deeply regret that we let our readers down.”
According to Editor & Publisher on March 26, Combs’ lawyer Howard Weitzman said he had sent two letters to the Times demanding removal and retraction of the story, one on March 18 and one on March 26.
Editor & Publisher reported that Weitzman said, when he first learned of the story on March 17, that he believed its alleged link between Combs and the shooting was false. When the documents were called into question by a third party, he said it showed the paper was not careful enough in its research, Editor & Publisher reported.
Editor & Publisher reported on March 26 that Weitzman said he had taken no steps to begin a lawsuit against the paper, but that a simple retraction may not be enough to avert a legal response. “[A retraction] does not absolve them of their liability, [it] only lowers the level of liability,” Weitzman said.
According to California Civil Code section 48a (2007), if a person claiming libel demands a retraction of the allegedly defamatory material within 20 days of becoming aware of the publication or broadcast, and the publisher or broadcaster satisfactorily retracts the material in question within three weeks of receiving the plaintiff’s notice, the plaintiff is limited to collecting “special damages,” such as lost wages or trade, and may not collect “general damages” which the state law defines as for “loss of reputation, shame, mortification and hurt feelings.”
The Times reported March 27 that in a letter to Times Publisher David Hiller, Weitzman said he believed that the Times’ conduct met the legal standard for proving “actual malice,” which would allow a public figure such as Combs to obtain damages in a libel suit. “Actual malice” is defined as publishing defamatory material with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
Media critics spoke out about the incident, criticizing the Times’ editorial procedure before the story was published.
Bob Steele, an ethics scholar at journalism think tank the Poynter Institute and member of the Silha Center’s advisory board, said in a March 27 column on the Poynter Web site that “… the quality control process at the LA Times apparently fell far short.” Steele’s column is available online at http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=67&aid=140402.
Steele’s questions, as well as those of other critics, focused on the provenance of Philips’ sources for the documents and corroboration.
Bill Wyman, former arts editor for National Public Radio and Salon.com, said in a March 28 post on his blog Hitsville that the Times’ report and the rebuttal from The Smoking Gun raise questions over whether Sabatino was Philips’ main source for the story and the documents, and whether the other unnamed sources’ reported corroboration of the forged documents would stand on their own.
Wyman also pointed to the contrast between Times’ characterization of Sabatino as a close and trusted associate of Combs who was present at the New York studio the night of the attack, and The Smoking Gun’s report which Wyman said characterized Sabatino as a “buffoon.” According to The Smoking Gun report, “[I]n the reams of copy about the 1994 attack, Sabatino’s name has never appeared anywhere. The first time a publication linked him to the Shakur ambush came last week in the Times.”
According to Wyman, a 1999 Miami New Times profile of Sabatino and his “buffoonish career” more closely resembled The Smoking Gun characterization. Wyman’s blog post is available at http://www.hitsville.org/2008/03/28/at-the-la-times-the-pain-may-be-just-beginning/.
The Times reported March 27 that in an interview, Philips said he had believed the FBI documents were legitimate because he had heard many of the same details about the attack in his reporting, and that three prison inmates who had purportedly carried out the attack and two other witnesses of the attack corroborated portions of the scenario described in the article.
According to the Times, Philips said he sought to check the authenticity of the documents with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, which declined to comment, and with a retired FBI agent, who said the documents appeared legitimate. Philips did not directly ask the FBI about the documents, the Times reported.
Slate Editor at Large Jack Shafer speculated that Philips’ comments may demonstrate “confirmation bias,” or “a universal human trait to seek evidence that confirms what you already believe, to interpret the evidence you’ve collected to bolster your existing view, and to avoid the evidence that would undermine your notions.” Shafer’s March 27 “Press Box” media criticism column is available online at http://www.slate.com/id/2187574/.
Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz wrote March 28 that “the story represents the biggest debacle at the Times since 1999, when the paper damaged its credibility by sharing profits with the Staples Center from a special magazine issue on the sports arena.”
Kurtz also said it was “the most prominent blunder involving unverified documents” since a 2004 incident involving CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and questions raised by bloggers and Web sites over documents the program said showed President Bush had received preferential treatment as a member of the Texas Air National Guard. Bloggers challenged the documents via online forums and using graphic illustrations and expert typographers, leading CBS News to eventually retract the story. CBS News’ Dan Rather stepped down in the wake of the controversy. (See “Dan Rather, Other Staff Members Depart ‘ 60 Minutes’ in Wake of Ethics Controversy in the Winter 2005 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor