The amazing Page One Los Angeles Times article today, correcting a probably libelous Times Calendar story published on St. Patrick's Day and written by investigative reporter Chuck Philips, is known in the journalism biz as a “skinback.” I don't know exactly where the term “skinback” originated, but you could feel the skin getting peeled off Philips piece by piece in the retraction by Jim Rainey. It describes how Philips got duped by con artist James Sabatino into running a false story that implicated Sabatino himself, as well as associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs, in the non-fatal but brutal 1994 shooting of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.
Apparently, five-time loser Sabatino was so desperate to entangle himself in the lives of famous rappers that he created the fake FBI document on an old typewriter, implicating himself and talent manager James Rosemond. Chuck Philips bought it, writing that Rosemond and Sabatino “set up the rapper Tupac Shakur to get shot at Quad Studios,” and then connected them to Combs' Bad Boy Records.
But the document was filled with dead-giveaways that it was a fake, which any independent documents expert could have told the Times. Credit goes to The Smoking Gun for ripping the lid off this putrid mess. There were problems with the Philips story even before The Gun went off.
It was so jammed with off-record sources it read like a piece from the Bad Old Days before corrupt journalist Jayson Blair so badly dirtied The New York Times. Today, among the nation's big dailies, the L.A. Times has one of the most useless policies for controlling its overuse of unnamed sources, which proliferate there like a plague. Take away the anonymous sources, and Philips' entire story turned on a bogus document.
Friends of mine at the Times say Chuck Philips is a good guy with high standards who would never knowingly twist his investigations for an outcome he desires – like, say, trying to taint Combs. Maybe that's true. But his and the paper's coverage of this case has attracted an inordinate amount of harsh criticism from other journos, ranging from Rolling Stone's detailed attack by Randall Sullivan to the juicy slam by Jan Golab for FrontPageMagazine.com.
An even more meticulous picking apart of Philips' obsession with this unsolved rap-world shooting is offered in a long-running series of posts on Patterico, a Los Angeles website operated by blogger and Los Angeles County assistant district attorney Patrick Frey. Among other political and media topics, Patterico specializes in pointing out untruths and bias in the Times (and with the skills of a prosecutor, he does a solid job digging up or pointing out embarrassing facts about the paper's news content – like what they leave out).
Both Patterico and our own Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood have previously noted that Philips hardly seems to be an arm's length journalist when it comes to this long-running rapper mystery. Nikki also called on the Times to take Philips off the Anthony Pellicano eavesdropping scandal – which seems prescient. (By the way, I called Philips for a comment, leaving a detailed voice mail, but he did not call me back.)
One thing seems clear. The Times badly wants to solve the Shakur shooting mystery. Maybe they should ask Patterico and Finke to do it.