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Pierre Omidyar's Intercept Says Ex-Staffer Plagiarized and Invented Quotes

Four corrections and one retraction, so far.

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On Tuesday morning, the digital magazine The Intercept posted a note from Editor in Chief Betsy Reed acknowledging that former staffer Juan M. Thompson plagiarized, made up quotes and, in one case, fully invented a story, in multiple articles. Thompson was fired for the alleged deception.

Reed says that Thompson, who formerly worked for news website DNAinfo and public radio station WBEZ in Chicago, “fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts.”

From Reed’s post:

An investigation into Thompson’s reporting turned up three instances in which quotes were attributed to people who said they had not been interviewed. In other instances, quotes were attributed to individuals we could not reach, who could not remember speaking with him, or whose identities could not be confirmed. In his reporting Thompson also used quotes that we cannot verify from unnamed people whom he claimed to have encountered at public events. Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.

Detailed corrections have been added to four articles, which focus on police brutality, Black Lives Matter activists and the city of St. Louis. One piece, which suggested that Charleston shooter Dylann Roof was spurned by a romantic interest who chose a black man over him, was found to have been based on quotes from an entirely falsified source. Reed said that The Intercept “will publish further corrections” if they are warranted.

In an email sent from Thompson to Betsy Reed, that Thompson provided to Re/code (and Reed verified), Thompson acknowledges that he made mistakes. He adds that this was due to poor editing at The Intercept, and because he did not want to expose the identities of “poor black people who didn’t want their names in the public.” We’ve posted the email below.

When we reached out to Thompson, he provided Re/code (as well as Gawker) with a version of the email that Reed says she did not receive, which includes an additional paragraph alleging unfair pay, and that editors called Thompson “a stray dog.”

The Intercept launched in early 2014, co-founded by a group including investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras. The two are best known for breaking the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. The Intercept’s parent company is First Look Media, an outfit launched in 2013 and funded by eBay co-founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

The impact of Thompson’s alleged fraud doesn’t appear as severe as the mendacity of ex-New York Times journalist Jayson Blair or 1990s prestige mag darling Stephen Glass. While The Intercept is influential (it won a National Magazine Award on Monday night), most of Thompson’s damage was done when his story about Dylann Roof was picked up by more widely read news outlets like the Daily Mail and the New York Daily News*.

DNAinfo Editor in Chief John Ness and representatives for First Look Media and WBEZ did not respond before this article was published.

Update: Gawker’s J.K. Trotter points out that one paragraph reads differently among the copies of the email sent to Reed that Thompson gave to media outlets, including Re/code and CNN. This is the same paragraph that Betsy Reed says she never saw in the message she received from Thompson. In the version Re/code obtained, the added sentence alleges a dimension of racism to a previous firing at The Intercept.

Additionally, Thompson addresses how he stretched his credentials (“Did all this force [me] to exaggerate my personal shit in order to prove my worth?”).

Chicago Public Media’s Kassie Stephenson told Re/code that Thompson was an intern at WBEZ in 2014. “He worked on our afternoon talk show, ‘The Afternoon Shift,’ as part of the production team. He didn’t have a byline,” Stephenson said. On Twitter, a DNAinfo editor said that he had “briefly” been an intern at that website a few summers back. Previously on The Intercept’s website, he was identified as having once been a reporter at both WBEZ and DNAinfo.

Over email, Thompson said that the following lines were an after-the-fact add:

Even after the only black reporter there was fired and the editor said to him “You seem too angry”, invoking the angry black male stereotype. Did all this force [me] to exaggerate my personal shit in order to prove my worth? Yes.

We’ve reached out for additional comment from Betsy Reed, and we’ll update if we hear back.

You can read Thompson’s email to Betsy Reed below, which he titled “The Great Problem” when he sent it to Re/code. The paragraph that Reed says she did not receive is highlighted in italics.

Ms. Reed:

I’ve been undergoing radiation treatment for testicular cancer and, since I no longer have health insurance, I’ve been feverishly struggling and figuring out how to pay for my treatment. All of this, of course, has taken up my time and energy; except for the few moments I’ve spent searching for some relief.

With regards to verifying the comments, I’m in STL undergoing treatment, again, and not in NY, thus I lack access to my notebooks (which I took for most stories) to address these matters. Moreover, after finally looking over the notes sent to me, I must say this: I had a habit of writing drafts of stories, placing the names of ppl I wanted to get quotes from in there, and then going to fetch the quotes.

(Was it sloppy? Yes? But I’m a cub reporter and expected a sustained and competent editor to guide me, something which I never had at your company and something with which The Intercept continues to struggle as everyone in this business knows.)

But, I digress; back to the situation before us.

If I couldn’t obtain a quote from the person I wanted, I went somewhere else, and must’ve forgot to change the names—clearly. Also, yes I encouraged some of my interviewees to use another name; they’re poor black people who didn’t want their names in the public given the situations and that was the only way of convincing them otherwise. That also explains why some of them didn’t want to talk with your company’s research team or denied the events. These weren’t articles in Harpers or The Nation. Instead, these are the lives of people forgotten by society and their being in public and talking to white, NY people, no less, could harm and turn them off. They’ve lost loved ones to violence you and others couldn’t possibly imagine.

Ultimately, the journalism that covers the experiences of poor black folk and the journalism others, such as you and First Look, are used to differs drastically. This dilemma is the Great Problem with the white media organizations that dominate our media landscape. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “The standard [white] progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy.” Such an approach ignores the differences in the way we must navigate these various fields: including journalism.

The comments from editors calling me a stray dog; the lower pay; the being told on a trip to DC that I “shouldn’t spend like it’s the first of the month”. I shrugged it all off. Even after the only black reporter there was fired and the editor said to him “You seem too angry”, invoking the angry black male stereotype. Did all this force [me] to exaggerate my personal shit in order to prove my worth? Yes.

I hope you and your company can understand all this and give me time to recover so that I may eventually look over my notes. I must say, though, it’s a very nefarious and ill liberal and anti humanist position to take if you do otherwise: kicking a cancer patient when he’s down. I’ve been through a lot tougher situations than this and will weather anything thrown my way.

Ms. Reed, I also just read Counsel Oberlander’s letter. I’m not in NY and have been sick and bed-ridden from radiation so of course I can’t return that laptop—that I also broke by the way. But if your company wishes to withhold my separation pay, which I was banking on for my treatment, go right ahead. I’m also owed reimbursement from the trip to DC which I haven’t received. But I’m not angry because, naturally, I didn’t bring this up because my focus is on much more important things.

* The Daily Mail appears to have deleted the article from its website, while the New York Daily News has appended an editor’s note.

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