Clarification to This Article
This article about the Los Angeles Times' retraction of a story on the 1994 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur may have left the impression that the Times story had been published on the front page. The story was published first on the Times' Web site and then on the front of the newspaper's Calendar section.

Tupac Papers Were Phony, L.A. Times Says in Apology

The Smoking Gun reported that James Sabatino, top, forged an FBI document purportedly showing that associates of Sean
The Smoking Gun reported that James Sabatino, top, forged an FBI document purportedly showing that associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs, lower right, were behind the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur, lower left. ((Top) Smoking Gun, (Bottom) Associated Press)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

After spending months digging into the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur, the Los Angeles Times took just over 13 hours to admit that it had been duped.

The newspaper apologized yesterday for relying on what it now acknowledges were apparently bogus FBI documents that the Times reporter never attempted to verify with the bureau. The story, which tied the 1994 wounding of Shakur to associates of another major rap figure, Sean "Puffy" Combs, prompted threats of legal action from attorneys for Combs and a talent manager implicated in the piece.

"In relying on documents that I now believe were fake, I failed to do my job," Chuck Philips, the story's Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said in a statement. "I'm sorry." Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin also took responsibility, saying: "We should not have let ourselves be fooled. . . . I deeply regret that we let our readers down."

William Bastone, a veteran journalist who runs the Smoking Gun Web site, told Philips a day after the story was published last week that he had misgivings about the authenticity of the purported FBI document. "I'm hoping they're going to do some kind of detailed after-action report because there are still very significant questions about how this happened," said Bastone, whose report led to the apology.

Philips told his paper that he tried to check out the documents with the U.S. attorney's office in New York, which declined to comment, and a retired FBI agent, who said the papers looked legitimate, but he did not put the question directly to bureau officials.

The Smoking Gun said the phony documents were created by a con man, James Sabatino, now serving an 11 1/2 -year prison term for fraud, who, oddly enough, was implicated in the story as having been at a New York recording studio when Shakur was wounded. Sabatino was 18 at the time. Shakur was murdered two years later. Like the earlier shooting, that case has never been solved.

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. It is also the most prominent blunder involving unverified documents since CBS News retracted its 2004 report about President Bush's National Guard service.

The Tupac piece was published a month after Russ Stanton took over as editor, in the wake of the parent Tribune Co. firing the paper's top editor for the second time in 15 months during disputes about budget cuts. Bob Steele, a scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said newsroom cutbacks may have had an impact, noting that the Times account said the story was read only by Duvoisin and two copy editors.

"For a paper like the L.A. Times to blow it, on what appear to be fake documents, is a very grievous journalistic error," Steele said. He credited the paper with quickly making amends but said "that doesn't erase the error."

Michael Parks, who was editor of the Times during the Staples controversy, said he always insisted that he and another top editor read all front-page stories in addition to the primary editor. While praising Philips as a usually thorough reporter, "they should have done more checking," said Parks, now director of the University of Southern California's School of Journalism. "Fake documents are not new, as CBS found out. . . . This calls into question in readers' minds whether they can believe things in the paper."

Stanton, who had been the paper's innovation editor, declined interview requests for the second straight day.

Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for Combs, now a businessman with his own clothing and fragrance lines, said yesterday: "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."


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