How Chuck Philips and the L.A. Times could have dodged the Tupac hoaxer.

Media criticism.
March 27 2008 6:08 PM

Biggie Mistake

How Chuck Philips and the L.A. Times could have dodged the Tupac hoaxer.

Fake document. Click image to expand.
Detail from the purported FBI files

A jailbird named James Sabatino appears to have duped the Los Angeles Times and its reporter Chuck Philips according to a withering Smoking Gun investigation published yesterday.

The Times apologized today for its March 17 story about the roots of the deadly feud between Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. by Philips. Philips and his editor have expressed their remorse for relying on now-discredited FBI documents. An internal investigation of the investigation has also been announced by the paper's top editor.

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How did a Pulitzer Prize winner like Philips and an excellent paper like the Times get snowed? What precautions should they have taken? We won't know the full story until the Times or some other news organization completes a postmortem and more is learned about the allegedly forged documents. But what happened at the Times isn't unique to newspapers. Con men have forged documents to perpetrate financial swindles, scientists have forged laboratory results and published their "findings" in the best journals, and police have manufactured evidence to convince juries to imprison innocent people. So don't be quick to claim that you could never be similarly hoodwinked.

Like most disasters, the Times' could have been avoided, which is easy for me to say in retrospect. Here are a few general suggestions for journalists, investors, scientists, juries, and other targets of how to avoid getting swindled by your sources.

Avoid confirmation bias. It's 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. "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," the Times reports today. Did Philips' willingness to believe what the documents said blind him to the typographic clues that the Smoking Gun says point to forgery? "[The documents] confirmed many of the things I'd learned on my own," Philips said in an interview before the debunking.

Know the provenance of your document. Sources who leak documents to reporters are often sketchy about how they obtained them. Until proved otherwise, every document should be assumed to be fake. In the Times case, Philips trusted the documents because they had been filed in court. That they were filed by Sabatino, currently doing time on fraud charges, should have raised red flags. That he filed them in a lawsuit against Sean Combs—long rumored to have some role in the feud between Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. that ended in the murders of both—should have raised red flagpoles. That the story names Sabatino as one of two individuals who set up an attack on Shakur should have sent the flagpoles into orbit. According to the Times, Philips did not ask the FBI about the documents that are so instrumental to his story. A former FBI man appears to have thought the documents genuine.

Don't trust documents, trust evidence. A document is only a piece of paper with writing on it. Even if authentic, a document is not necessarily true. The FBI, just to mention one organization, has produced hundreds of thousands of authentic documents whose combined truth content is less than zero. In the Times case, the discredited documents appear to have been prepared with a typewriter, not a computer, which should have revealed them as counterfeit.

Enlist outside experts. Many newspapers conduct their investigations inside a tiny, bias-confirming box because they fear an information leak will get them scooped. If the Times had brought in outside experts—even other experienced Times journalists—to "murder board" the story before publication, the paper might not have a tractortrailer-load of eggs on its face today. The less a stake an outside source has in a story, the better his critique will likely be. According to the Times, the only people to review the story prior to publication were the primary editor and two editors on the copy desk, which is low by Times standards.

Always ask, "Why now?" When new and startling evidence surfaces to help solve an ancient mystery, as happened in the Times story, a journalist must always ask, "Why now? Why hasn't this evidence appeared before?" Is it because the source of the evidence stands to gain financially by its publication? Because the evidence will spring them from jail? Because they're a notorious liar who loves to lie? Cui bono, baby, cui bono.

Never trust a flimflam man. Sabatino possesses a long rap sheet. From the Smoking Gun: "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, conducted business with Combs, Shakur, Busta Rhymes, and The Notorious B.I.G., and even served as Combs's trusted emissary to Death Row Records boss Marion 'Suge' Knight." Also, "[From jail], Sabatino worked with a raggedy group of accomplices—most of whom he never met—and defrauded firms of upwards of $1 million."

The Times'Tupac-Biggie story fell apart so quickly because, like CBS News' 2004 story about George W. Bush's service record (PDF), its primary evidence was quickly shredded by Web critics. In the CBS case, bloggers aggressively disputed the veracity of the "Kilian documents." In the Times case, the Web wizards at the Smoking Gun uncovered a host of suspicious typographic and factual anomalies in the purported FBI documents, which the paper posted (PDF).

Seeing as the Smoking Gun broke the story, we should pay extra attention to the wisdom of its editor, William Bastone. The story simply violated his investigative instincts. "The whole thing did not pass the smell test," he told the New York Times. "Here you have this white teenager from Boynton Beach, Fla., who was in the middle of all these events and no one has ever heard of him."

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If your mother says she loves you, check it out. First, find documentary evidence of her love (an expensive gift, perhaps). Next, find a witness who can vouch for her love. After that, get a signed affidavit from your mother. But she could still be faking it. Does your mother love you? Send evidence to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.