It may have been the biggest f-up in the history of mainstream media hip-hop coverage.
In case you haven't heard, the Los Angeles Times was caught red-faced when website TheSmokingGun.com out-reported — and more importantly, out-fact-checked — the daily newspaper a couple weeks ago on what seemed to be an important story detailing new evidence in the 1994 shooting and robbery of the late Tupac Shakur. Times reporter Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, revealed that an incarcerated and unnamed informant had confirmed the involvement of Sean "Diddy" Combs, Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, hip-hop manager Jimmy "Henchman" Rosemond, and Mafia wanna-be James Sabatino in the incident. Philips did not name the shooter(s) but presented alleged FBI case files and court transcripts. One of the robbers, Philips wrote, still had Shakur's purloined medallion, fourteen long years after the fact.
The Times article drew more than one million viewers to the paper's web site, making it the newspaper's most heavily trafficked article this year.
Blogs followed suit. "Sometimes a reporter comes to a story, and sometimes the story comes to him," wrote blogger/author Jeff Chang in a post. Other outlets, however, were skeptical. As MTV News noted, Philips has sparked controversy before with his reporting methods. "His allegations are at times hard to believe, and he has drawn criticism for largely citing unnamed sources," wrote reporter Jayson Rodriguez. "And many question why an older white man is the one pursuing the case of two murdered black hip-hip icons."
Philips initially defended his reportage. "I'm not gonna write it just because someone says it," he told MTV News. People have tried to set him up in the past, he added, "But in this case, I [didn't] write anything until I feel it's confident, it's true."
The only problem was the story was apparently completely fabricated by Sabatino, a chubby, boyish-faced scam artist with a long rap sheet who has boasted of his alleged ties to both La Cosa Nostra and the hip-hop elite. After the Smoking Gun meticulously dissected Philips' account, pointing out several glaring inconsistencies — among them evidence that the FBI documents were typed on a typewriter, not a computer (the bureau hasn't used typewriters for approximately thirty years) and, most tellingly, that Sabatino wasn't in New York when Shakur was shot — the Times admitted its error. "I got duped," Philips told the Associated Press, which is basically the journo-speak equivalent of "Oh shit. My Bad."
There's also the matter of potential litigation both from Diddy and Rosemond. In a statement, Rosemond's attorney said the Times and Philips should "Print an apology and take out their checkbooks or brace themselves for an epic lawsuit." Since the Times issued a formal apology within 21 days as required by law, any potential lawsuit would face an uphill batle, considering the strength of California's media protections.
Perhaps most interesting is speculation on how this doozy of a boo-boo will impact the future of entertainment reporting and, specifically, coverage of rap and hip-hop. "Mainstream publications have been letting a lot of people who aren't connected to hip-hop do major stories," says author Adisa Banjoko. "Stories on Tupac, B.I.G., or any other dead rapper [are] seen as easy filler and hype for a boost in sales."
From a mainstream media perspective, rap music is often associated with crime just like famine is associated with Ethiopia. High-profile incidents of violence involving rappers have long been fodder for newspapers, Internet sites, and TV news; sensationalistic, tabloid-style reporting has become par for the course. After with this latest blunder, the Times look like opportunists willing to print anything, as long as it draws traffic.
Meanwhile, Philips is starting to seem like a G-Funk version of the morally twisted paparazzo Danny DeVito played in L.A. Confidential. His past stories on the B.I.G. and Tupac killings were questioned by African-American journalists and hip-hop-identified outlets, yet his methodology largely remained sacrosanct despite these complaints. His 1999 Pulitzer for exposing corruption in the entertainment industry gave Philips a lot of credibility, but that now seems as dubious as the purported FBI case files Sabatino apparently wrote from behind bars.
This latest incident only renews suspicions about the veracity of Philips' past work. In particular, Philips has been accused of deliberately misreporting key evidence in the 2005 wrongful death suit against the city of Los Angeles by B.I.G.'s mother, Violetta Wallace. He also claimed that B.I.G. paid a member of the Crips $1 million to kill Shakur in 1996 — which was denied by both Tupac and Biggie's camps — and has drawn suspicion away from Suge Knight by discrediting ex-LAPD detective Russell Poole, whose investigation of B.I.G.'s 1997 murder led to a tangled web of corrupt cops, music industry gangstas, and city officials.
In 2005, Front Page magazine speculated that Philips was an apologist for Knight and Death Row Records: "By fingering two dead men ... as Tupac's killers, Philips' story took the focus off Suge Knight, whom many believe had Tupac killed because Tupac planned to leave Death Row. Philips' story also claimed that Biggie was later killed by the Crips for stiffing them — again taking the heat off prime suspect Suge Knight."
Webmaster/journalist Davey D says he dismissed Chuck Philips a long time ago. "Now it's beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's wrong and he was wrong in the past," he says.
Perhaps, but to many hip-hop insiders, digging up Tupac's 1994 shooting seemed like a red herring in the first place. At the end of the day, Davey D says, Philips' stories "don't really connect the dots in any kind of meaningful way."
Still, he adds, "A lot of this stuff has run its course. ... If you look at the top news that's going on in hip-hop, it's all arrests. ... People are talking about Remy Ma crying in court. That's what I'm hearing."
The bottom line in the assassinations of Tupac and Biggie remains that both murders are still unsolved. If and when the truth is ever uncovered, it's probably safe to say it won't be the Times or Chuck Philips who're responsible.
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