Along with JFK, one of the greatest murder mysteries in modern American history is death of Tupac and Biggie (not to mention Jam Master Jay). Like the JFK assassination, theories fly around but there's still no definitive answer (unless you believe the Warren Commission and/or the LAPD). One reporter who's been tireless tracking the story of Tupac's demise and circumstance surrounding it is Los Angeles Times writer Chuck Philips. Initially, the big story was Philips' recent revelation of P. Diddy's involvement in a savage attack on Tupac but now that's turned into an embarrassed retraction. This ain't an easy story to untangle but it's worth wading through some of the history here.
Though it was reported there when it happened in the mid-90's, the deepening story of Tupac's undoing and the L.A. Times goes back to the 2002 when Philips started to dive into this mystery. Who Killed Tupac Shukar a headline asked that year. The article included a number of bombshells, including linking the murder to an L.A. gang and the murder weapon to Biggie himself (which Smalls' family denied). Because the circumstances were such a complex web and because not enough people were coming forward with information and the ones that did were suspect, the article was far from the final word about the story.
Then on March 17th of this year, another bombshell came from Philips and the L.A. Times. They had obtained new information that tied Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy aka P. Diddy) into an attack on Tupac where the rapper was shot five times in the lobby of a New York recording studio in November 1994. For obvious reasons, the original story isn't available at the LAT website though it was reported and repeated extensively elsewhere (i.e. Newsday and eFluxMedia). It was quite a scoop, or so it seemed. One curious item about the story was that it broke online first and then was going to appear in an abbreviated version in print. At the time, the LAT was bragging that they had almost half a million visits for the 2800 word story.
Needless to say, while LAT was crowing about the story and ready to rake in more ad bucks, Diddy wasn't crazy about it, denying its validity, which was to be expected. Philips himself shot back, defending his story with the LAT standing behind him. He even said that he was planning a pair of follow-up stories on the topic, including an investigation into Biggie's murder.
There was just one little problem- the material that the new story was based on was B.S.. And how did this come out? As AP explained, the Smoking Gun website dug into the source involved and found that he was... lacking:
"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 during the outset of hostilities in the bloody East Coast-West Coast rap feud."
Ouch. The LAT had to eat crow and make this announcement: "A Los Angeles Times story about a brutal 1994 attack on rap superstar Tupac Shakur was partially based on documents that appear to have been fabricated, the reporter and editor responsible for the story said Wednesday."
Philips, who's a Pulitzer winning writer, is no slouch but he blew it here. The Smoking Gun did their homework and filled the role of fact checking and watchdog that Phillips and/or his editors should have done (not that this has been the first time a print story's been exposed as bunk thanks to the web).
So what's the lesson here? As much as it's reviled (usually offline, not surprisingly), the web media can provide a valuable service by keeping the brick-and-mortar old school media on its toes: this not only supplements their work but also helps to keep them honest. Just as the recent spate of author frauds have shaken numerous publishing houses (i.e. Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defoseca), it proves that breaking a big story is no excuse for doing your homework and making sure important facts are what they seem.
I still have a lot of respect for LAT (they've provided some of the best entertainment coverage for years now) and hope that Philips can straighten himself out because when he's on, he's a great writer. Also give LAT credit for being transparent about its mistakes and what led up to it as they did in a recent article. Despite this setback, I hope he or at least someone else pursues the subject of Tupac's murder and the circumstances leading up to it (including the 1994 incident LAT reported about) because as it stands, no one has been trying to untangle this mystery as extensively otherwise. As bad as it is to screw up a story like this, it's even worse that the people who committed the murder still haven't been found.
FRIDAY UPDATE: Editor and Publisher has a good article about the fall-out from the recent L.A. Times story too. There's also a attack on Philips in FrontPage magazine, that seems a little suspect as it's so vicious and unrelenting (it claims, among other things, that Philips is record mogul Suge Knight's dupe).
CORRECTION: The recent L.A. Times story tied Diddy into a savage beating on Tupac in 1994 and not the rapper's 1996 murder.