- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

The new media continues to police the old media.

An astute Web site editor tracked down facts that knocked down a lavishly displayed Los Angeles Times investigative story about a 1994 attack on the late rap artist Tupac Shakur, forcing the newspaper to admit its blockbuster account — written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter — was based on fabricated documents.

“I don’t expect every reporter to be able to judge an FBI document. But if the content of that document was demonstrably false, then it should have set off warning lights — 30 warning lights,” said William Bastone, editor of the Smokinggun.com, a New York-based Web site which showcases authentic legal and government documents.

Robert Steele, a media-ethics analyst at the Poynter Institute, said the quickness and reach of the news requires more rigorous quality control than ever before.

“It’s reasonable to ask if the multimedia production which accompanied that story online served the best interest of getting to the truth and fairness of the story. That too should be examined when the Times looks back on what went wrong,” said Mr. Steele.

“Just because an enterprise reporter has hunches and leads doesn’t mean it’s going to pay off,” he said.

The Times, on March 17, reported online that singer Sean “Diddy” Combs was privy to the 1994 attack on Tupac Shakur, accompanying the 2,800-word story with splashy video, a timeline, a photo gallery, song lyrics and special images for readers to download: FBI documents to support the claims.

Using federal court documents and other sources, Mr. Bastone deconstructed the Times story and traced the papers to an inmate in a Pennsylvania penitentiary with a lengthy criminal record.

“The L.A. Times was duped,” Mr. Bastone said. “Hopefully they now will explain themselves.”

Mr. Bastone examined the supposed documents, suspicious of their spelling deficiencies and type face — similar to a vetting process used by conservative bloggers who revealed that CBS News anchor Dan Rather had used falsified documents in a 2004 story claiming President Bush had compromised his Vietnam-era military service.

Mr. Combs’ attorney said the Times ignored two letters of protest about the story and is threatening a legal response, according to Editor & Publisher. The paper posted hundreds of reader comments online, some calling for staff resignations.

The Times itself was steeped in mea culpa yesterday and has launched an internal investigation.

“I failed to do my job. I’m sorry,” said the reporter, Chuck Phillips.

A “thorough and rapid investigation” is underway said Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan, who had no comment about the feelings of readers in the aftermath.

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