Posted May 23
In a December, 1999, front page story, the Los Angeles Times ran the name and picture of a man it identified as a suspect in the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. So what did the paper's editors do when one of its reporters discovered the story was wrong? They fought amongst themselves, and sat on the facts.
It's every newspaper editor's nightmare: Two of your star reporters identify a police suspect in a high-profile celebrity murder. You give it big play: page one, above the fold. You print the suspect's name and publish his photograph. The story turns out to be dead wrong. What do you do next?
If you're an editor at the Los Angeles Times, you do absolutely nothing. That's what happened for more than a month after Times editors realized that their December, 1999, story identifying a man named Amir Muhammad as a suspect in the 1997 murder of the rapper Christopher Wallace, a k a The Notorious B.I.G., was wrong. By early March, according to two newsroom staffers, the lead detective on the case told a Times reporter that Muhammad was not a current suspect in the murder, and hadn't been one when the original story ran in Dec. The Times waited until May 3 to report this fact.
THE BLOCKBUSTER STORY THAT WASN'T
Why did the paper wait so long to correct the record? The follow-up story was delayed nearly two months while editors fought over whether the paper should simply report the new facts of the case, or revisit the mistakes that were made in the first story that wrongly identified Muhammad, according to two editors and one reporter at the Times.
That original story, by Metro reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover, was a big scoop for the paper. Lait and Glover thought they had uncovered a connection between the rapper's murder and the Rampart Division police-corruption scandal, a story the same pair had broken in September.
The Times reporters wrote that police suspected an ex-Los Angeles cop named David Mack in a murder-for-hire scheme to kill Wallace. And since Mack was once partners with the officer at the center of the corruption scandal, a potential blockbuster link between the two stories existed, and the L.A. Times would be out in front on both.
Under the murder-for-hire theory, Mack's triggerman was his college friend, Amir Muhammad, who appeared to match details the police had on the shooter. Even though the reporters Lait and Glover were unable to find Muhammad, the paper ran the story, printing his name and driver's license photo.
THE STORY FALLS APART
But even on cursory examination, the article didn't hold up. It quoted just two sources on the record, both of whom dismissed the theory -- and didn't reveal until later in the article that police detectives were also pursuing a second theory for the murder that didn't involve Muhammad. The article even stated that police sources "refused to say which theory, if any, was being given more credence."
Chuck Philips says he was skeptical when he saw the piece. A veteran reporter at the Times business desk, Philips, 47, had shared a Pulitzer for beat reporting in 1999 for his coverage of the music business, a beat that involves covering a lot of crime stories. "Chuck is sort of the world's authority on rap violence," says his editor, Mark Saylor.
Philips had been following the Wallace investigation closely, but had never heard about the Mack-Muhammad theory reported by Lait and Glover. So he set out to find Amir Muhammad. It took him three days, according to Philips and Muhammad's lawyer.
After a few weeks of cajoling, Philips says he convinced Muhammad to speak on the record, and by the first week of March the business reporter had heard another version of events from David Martin, the lead detective on the Wallace murder case. Martin told the reporter Muhammad had not been a suspect when the story ran. The LAPD officer in charge of the unit investigating the crime, Lieutenant Al Michelena, confirmed to Brill's Content that Muhammad is not a suspect and was not one when the Times story ran in December.
Asked about that, L.A. Times executive editor Leo Wolinsky said, "That's revisionist history. There's a bit of a disconnect within the police department."
Muhammad declined to comment for this article, but his lawyer, Bryant Calloway, described his client as a 40-year-old Southern California mortgage broker with a young daughter. He says his client had nothing to do with Wallace's murder and had no idea his name had surfaced in connection with the case until he saw the L.A. Times article on December 9. Muhammad's first thought upon reading Glover and Lait's piece, says Calloway, was "concern for his safety and the safety of his family." He feared that an irate Notorious B.I.G. fan might try to avenge the murder. "His life stopped," says Calloway. "The first three or four days he didn't leave the house."
"THE UGLIEST EXPERIENCE I'VE EVER HAD"
In March, after tracking Muhammad down and hearing the lead detective's contradiction of Lait and Glover's December article, Philips says he filed a follow-up article to Wolinsky on March 17. (Wolinsky disputes that, and says he first saw the story on March 28.) Philips described what happened next as "the ugliest experience I've ever had in any story I've worked on."
City editor Bill Boyarsky was apprehensive about a Times reporter contradicting Glover and Lait, according to two newsroom staffers. Lait and Glover are considered rising stars, and many staffers think their coverage of the Rampart Division corruption scandal might win the paper a Pulitzer.
Metro editors were opposed to any follow-up story on the Wallace case that raised questions about the reporting on the original story, according to two newsroom insiders. A Times staffer described their view as, "their guys had not made a mistake and that the original story was correct." Says Boyarsky, "I felt it shouldn't run as an analysis and attack on the previous story."
But the business desk's Philips and Saylor thought the follow-up story should reflect the fact that the Times had made a mistake. "I think that Matt [Lait] and Scott [Glover] approached the original story honorably," says Saylor. "My concern and Chuck [Philips's] concern was only dealing fairly with the story as the facts came out later."
(Glover declined to comment for this article. Lait would say only that "the first story speaks for itself" and that he was "supportive of the second story and thought it should go in.")
As the editorial turf war between the Metro and Business desks dragged on -- "It got to be like the Northern Ireland talks," says Boyarsky -- Muhammad waited for the paper to report that he wasn't a suspect.
(All of this was unfolding in the shadow the Staples Center's scandal, the purchase of the paper's parent company by Chicago's Tribune Co., and the ouster of editor in chief Michael Parks.)
On April 21 (Parks's last day) reporter Philips learned a final version of his follow-up story had been approved and would appear in the April 22 edition, the Saturday before Easter, a traditionally slow news day.
When Philips saw that version, he says he objected; certain quotes from Muhammad, for instance, were missing. Plus, his editor, Saylor -- who according to both camps had been promised an opportunity to sign off on the final edit -- wasn't in the office that day. After contacting Saylor for support and threatening to remove his own byline, Philips succeeded in keeping the article out of the next day's paper.
Almost two weeks later, on May 3, 2000, a compromise version of Philips's story that did not explicitly fault the Times for running the original article appeared in the Metro section. It was five months after Lait and Glover's front-page mistake.
After weeks of negotiating, why the sudden rush to get the story out? Philips says Wolinsky, the executive editor, told him that "they wanted to get it in before John Carroll (the new editor in chief) arrived."
Wolinsky denies fast-tracking the story for April 22. "The story went into the paper the absolute moment it was ready to go," he says. "[It] went in when it was adequately edited, written, and reported." City editor Bill Boyarsky also denies rushing the article, but admits that he wanted the problem "cleaned up" before Carroll's arrival.
In the final article, Philips quotes Muhammad as asking, "How can something so completely false end up on the front page of a major newspaper?" The story did not answer that question, though it did clear Muhammad's name.
But that may not be enough. In January, Muhammad's lawyer, Calloway, wrote a letter to the L.A.Times calling the original story "clearly defamatory" and demanding that the paper issue a retraction. As of May 23, the Times had not done so, and Calloway says Muhammad is considering suing the paper for defamation of character.
"The horrendous thing about being associated with a crime," says Calloway, "is that it plants a seed of doubt. People like to believe negative things about others. And the Times gave them a doozy."
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Copyright Brill Media Ventures, L.P. 2000