At least two people are no doubt cackling with glee at yesterday’s mea culpa by the L.A. Times about an explosive story that blew up in the paper’s face: Sean “Puffy” Combs, who was erroneously linked to the
murder 1994 beating of Tupac Shakur through FBI reports that are very likely forgeries, and David Simon, creator of The Wire. You will recall that Simon’s final season featured a central — and widely maligned — subplot about a hungry reporter with a history of controversy who pushes a hot story forward on bogus evidence. It’s worth noting that the L.A. Times reporter in question, Chuck Philips, though a Pulitzer Prize winner, has been previously criticized for biased reporting for articles he wrote on the Biggie Smalls murder investigation. Nonetheless, he managed to get a questionably sourced blockbuster story into the paper, with credulous editors at his side.
In this case, Philips based his story about Combs's role in the
killing beating of Tupac on FBI documents of uncertain provenance that The Smoking Gun revealed to be probable forgeries. Philips apologized for being duped, but maybe he simply wasn’t sufficiently skeptical (you know—like David Simon is!). After all, William Bastone, the editor of The Smoking Gun, said he investigated the documents because “the whole thing did not pass the smell test” — a test Phillips and his editors apparently weren’t eager to apply.
You know what else wouldn’t pass the smell test? A story about a little black kid in a wheelchair who loves baseball but can’t get tickets to the Orioles home opener! If only Gus Haines worked at the L.A. Times!
Simon’s critics — Vulture included — complained that he had a too-cynical view of modern newspapers, and that a slippery rat like Templeton would have been flushed out. In fact, one critic wrote that “life at The Wire’s Baltimore Sun seems oddly cut-and-dried, which is surprising given the series' usual fondness for shades of gray. Hard-nosed editors in the trenches: good; upper management with their eyes on the (Pulitzer) prize: bad. Given the standards the show has set, it's a bit disappointing.” Wait, which paper was that again—oh yes, the L.A. Times.
So while the Times eats crow, Simon should be crowing, right? Well, yes and no. After all, Philips's shoddy story got busted just days later by online watchdogs — as, we suspect, Scott Templeton’s would have, had he existed in real life. So Simon got the beginning of the fable right, but not the ending. Templeton wouldn’t have bagged a Pulitzer. He’d have been shamed by The Smoking Gun. —Adam Sternbergh