Disgrace at the L.A. Times, Courtesy of The Smoking Gun

Last Updated Mar 27, 2008 7:09 PM EDT

Once an elite, respected newspaper, the Los Angeles Times is now simply the latest old media company brought to its knees and humiliated by a far younger and less honored online service, The Smoking Gun.

Unless you've spent the past 48 hours in a cave at Tora Bora, you know by now that the Times publicly apologized for using documents that were apparently fabricated in a story implicating associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs in a 1994 assault on rapper Tupac Shakur.

"The bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used," Editor Russ Stanton said in a story posted Wednesday night on the newspaper's Web site. "We apologize both to our readers and to those referenced in the documents ... and in the story."

The Smoking Gun said the documents seemed phony because they appeared to be written on a typewriter instead of a computer and included blacked-out sections not typically found in such documents, among other problems.

Just like the fall from grace by CBS News; and CNN's "Tailwind" scandal, and the many embarrassments at The New York Times in recent years, this latest case is a direct result of the deterioration of editorial standards in the nation's old media empires.

The irony here, of course, is that one of the main raps against new media by old media was (and occasionally still is) that you can't trust everything you read online.

That's true, of course, but how have the new media news organizations fared when it comes to sorting out the truth from the fiction that comes in over the transom?

The answer is that right from the early days of the Web, new media companies have been far less prone to being "duped" (the word the L.A. Times' used about itself) than have the old news brands.

There was, for example, the TWA Flight 800 flap.

And there were major embarrassments for the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News during the Lewinsky scandal -- incidents that resembled this bizarre L.A. Times episode in one critical but rarely-mentioned aspect common to all three cases.

What's interesting is that these old media organizations published their discredited articles not in their newspapers but on the web.
The Tupac story, written by Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, was the first investigative report published as a Web exclusive, said Meredith Artley, editor of LATimes.com.

"This piece was perfect for the Web," Artley said. "The Web audience skews younger. We had all these great multimedia elements, and we said we really don't need to wait to fit this in the paper."

The story and related features on latimes.com attracted nearly 1 million page View -- more than any other story on latimes.com this year, according to the newspaper.

But what exactly made it "perfect for the Web?" One can't help but wonder what role Tribune Company owner Sam Zell's exhortations, reported here yesterday, to his minions -- "You 'effing' people need to start listening to your audience and give them more of what they want!" -- may have played in this case.

Now, instead of counting his profits, Zell had better be preparing to turn them over to the wrongly accused Sean "Diddy" Combs. Somehow, I doubt this real estate magnate will be staying in the newspaper business much longer.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.