That Story About Warner Music Paying For A Rappers' PhD? Well... Not So Much

from the fact-checking? dept

We keep seeing claims by newspaper people that bloggers don't fact check and that newspapers do. In fact, in a recent discussion, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi seemed to blast bloggers for not being able to live without newspaper reporter fact checking:
"I can't imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don't really care about any of that. They're mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they're getting their basic facts."
Fair enough. But, as we keep finding out, it seems that newspapers aren't all that concerned about where they get their "facts," either. And sometimes we "bloggers," who are mostly about ourselves and our opinions, have to step in and do some fact checking ourselves.

Case in point: last week, I wrote a post here on Techdirt about how Warner Music helped a famous 80's rapper get a PhD in psychology. The post was based on an article in the NY Daily News by Walter Dawkins. It seemed reasonable to assume that such a professional news organization had fact checked the story. Yet, even before I hit publish, some questions were raised. The article noted that she had received her PhD in psychology from Cornell -- my alma mater. And when I wrote the post up, I initially mentioned that fact (school pride is fun). Yet when I asked some people I know who also went through Cornell's psychology program and would have likely been in a position to have known (or known of) Roxanne Shante, I was told that they hadn't heard of her. Also, multiple attempts to find her dissertation in databases like PsychInfo turned up nothing. Oh yeah, and then there's this: Cornell doesn't offer a clinical psychology degree, and the article clearly states that her work is in clinical psychology.

So, I went searching, and found (first) a video interview where she claimed to have attended Cornell Medical -- which is still Cornell, but is a separate organization based in New York City, rather than up in Ithaca with the rest of the school. So... perhaps her degree was from there. But, then I came across another report claiming that she only got her masters at Cornell, and then returned to Marymount Manhattan College -- where she went as an undergrad -- for the PhD.

I thought that this made some amount of sense, and let the post go out. I figured that perhaps the Daily News reporter got confused about where she got her PhD, but he must have at least fact checked the rest? I should have known better.

After the post went up, some additional comments came in highlighting some other problems with her story, and so I decided to do some of the fact checking it appeared that the big professional reporters at The Daily News did not do. I contacted the administration at Cornell, and received the following response:
We've had everyone from the Graduate School to Alumni Affairs and Development to the Psychology Department search their databases, using every possible configuration of her names, and no one has found any evidence that Ms. Shante ever attended Cornell University.
Oops. Still, others pointed out that there were two references in two separate publications, The Cornell Chronicle and The Cornell Daily Sun, both to a conference held on campus that Shante took part in, though both seemed to be based on her own statements. The Daily Sun is independent of the university (though run by students), but the Chronicle is an official school publication. It's quite telling that the Chronicle article does not follow the established style guidelines of Cornell official publications in referring to an alum: it does not provide a year. It's typical to say things like "Ph.D. '08." That's done for others in that same article. But Shante's Ph.D. claim is not accompanied by a date, suggesting that the reporter was unable to confirm it. There's also an odd list of "Notable Cornell alum" that lists her, but the link is for "Class of '91," which she certainly didn't attend. Also, once again, her listing doesn't include a date.

From there, I contacted the administration at Marymount Manhattan College, and specifically contacted Dean Marguerita Grecco, who is named in the original Daily News article as supporting Ms. Shante, and sending the tuition bills to Warner Music. Despite multiple attempts to reach Dr. Grecco, she refused to respond at all. However, I was able to get a rather curt response from someone else in the administration, claiming that the only information he would give me is: "Roxanne Shante attended classes at Marymount Manhattan College during the fall semester of 1995." That did not answer my questions about what degree(s) she obtained (if any), and only seems to raise more questions. Did she attend classes there beyond that one semester? The school won't say.

Oh yeah, it's worth mentioning: Marymount Manhtattan College does not offer a PhD program in psychology. Only a bachelors.

So, the original article claimed that Warner Music spent over $200,000 on this woman's education. I reached out to Warner Music to ask them who they sent that money to. Admittedly, all of this happened back in the '90s, when Warner Music was owned by Time Warner. It no longer is. It's got new ownership and new management. Yet, despite the fact that folks at Warner Music aren't particularly big fans of this site (I have no clue why), they went digging through all sorts of records to see what they could turn up. From that, they sent over the following statement:
"Roxanne Shante's story is a compelling one and we wish her all success in her good works. With respect to the specifics of her recording agreement, we are not in a position to comment definitively because her agreement was with an independent record label known as Cold Chillin' Records, and the transactional file is more than 20 years old. Our examination of that file however has not revealed any evidence of any 'education clause' in any agreement. That is not a commentary on Ms. Shante's label or on the existence of such a clause. In fact, our view is that artists' compensation can be put to many good uses; if Cold Chillin' guided this artist's compensation to education expenses that would certainly be a worthy one."
So, even if there was an "education clause," Warner Music can't find any record of it. Instead, it appeared to just have a rather typical distribution deal with an indie label that she was signed to. Next up, the article claims that Shante is running "an unconventional therapy practice focusing on urban African-Americans." Unfortunately, searches of the NY database of such professionals has yet to turn up any evidence that she's listed. Admittedly, the interface for that system is not particularly user friendly, but various attempts to find her under various names (both her stage name and her birth name) turned up nothing. In searching around, I could find no business listing for her therapy organization.

Also, I could not find ways to contact her. I did try via a MySpace page that is supposedly hers, but it's not clear if it's really her page, and I have not heard back. Finally, I contacted the NY Daily News, and asked either for additional backup material, an explanation, or to let me speak with the original reporter, Walter Dawkins. As of publishing this, I have not heard from either of them.

I should note that this is yet another great example of how wonderful the Techdirt community is. It was via the comments that many of these questions were raised, and it allowed me to go in search of the details (or lack thereof). I've said before that what makes this site so much fun is the discussion we have in the comments, and this is yet another bit of proof. Update: Looks like friend of the blog Ben Sheffner was doing similar research over the past few days as well, and got Shante to admit the PhD doesn't exist, but she fails to explain pretty much anything else.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 2:48pm

    Well, good on Warner Music

    Really nice of them to do a stand-up job for a website that they likely despise.

    (I'll still slag them the next time they do something bone-headed, but I feel honor-bound to praise them when they don't.)

     

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    PRMan, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:04pm

    Here Here

    Here here.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:36pm

    So this is more proof that it's the newspapers and "professionals" that do all the fact checking while Joe Blow Blogger just parasites off of newspapers and does no fact checking whatsoever.

     

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    Marcus Carab (profile), Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:39pm

    There is little I enjoy more than tales of investigative journalism. Excellent stuff, Mike!

     

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    Kazi, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:44pm

    I'll bet they'll say it's a "freelancer" and not a "salaried professional" wherein "freelancers" are the ones who blog a lot.

    OOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooooooooops.

     

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    Skeptical Cynic (profile), Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:51pm

    Fact Checking is not the providence of REAL reporters.

     

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    KD, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 3:57pm

    Why not update the original Techdirt article about this?

    Is there a reason that there is no update to the body of the original Techdirt article on this story to alert someone who comes across that article in the future that it is substantially in error?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 4:01pm

    So where are all those who say that newspapers are so accurate and do all the fact checking while blogs don't now? Why aren't they post here explaining why they're right and why Mike is wrong about this one? Where are they? They aren't afraid to make comments where no one is allowed to challenge them (ie: [bloggers are] mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they're getting their basic facts) why doesn't he come over here and say that? Where is he? Where are all the pro newspaper anti bloggers? Why won't I see them post here defending their position? Come on, don't just disappear on me when faced with facts and then continue to spew your nonsense elsewhere where the facts don't exist.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 4:06pm

      Re:

      and if the "professionals" do make corrections, now thanks to the blogs correcting them, they probably won't even give credit to Techdirt or any blog for correcting them, they will simply parasite off of the blogs and not give credit to anyone falsely claiming that they did all the investigation and that they independently discovered the truth.

       

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      DJ (profile), Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 4:30pm

      Re:

      "Why aren't they post here explaining why they're right and why Mike is wrong about this one? Where are they?... Come on, don't just disappear on me when faced with facts and then continue to spew your nonsense elsewhere where the facts don't exist."

      Answered your own question

       

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      Doctor Strange, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 9:25pm

      Re:

      Why aren't they post here explaining why they're right and why Mike is wrong about this one? Where are they?

      They're not posting here likely because they don't exist, or are exceedingly rare. They are straw men, created out of generalities, lambasted here for your viewing pleasure.

      If someone says something like "we need newspapers because they fact-check and bloggers don't," do you really believe they are saying that in the most absolute sense? That being or working for a newspaper automatically grants you infallibility, and that writing a blog means that you're incapable of doing fact-checking or investigative reporting?

      Of course not. There are obvious and numerous examples of newspapers not fact-checking and bloggers getting the real story.

      The existence of a few examples or counterexamples is terribly weak evidence in an important debate. The important question, in my mind is: if newspaper-style journalism goes away or diminishes, will whatever replaces it improve or reduce the factuality of news?

      Journalistic standards exist. Some are written down and codified, and others are informal. Journalism has professional societies that maintain and promulgate these standards and codes. These are characteristics of a highly self-regulating field--other examples include medicine and law. Self-regulation within a profession is often a hedge: a way to avoid external regulation by, e.g., the government.

      Do these standards, if followed, promote high-quality, factual news reporting? I would hope so. But some may argue this.

      Do these standards actually work in practice? Do journalists follow them? Since there aren't legal consequences for breaking (most of) them, do employers of journalists - like newspapers - help to enforce them? I don't know - I'm not a journalist. I know that I've seen cases where the standards aren't followed, and many more cases where they are. But again, my own experience doesn't really provide data one way or the other - just an anecdote.

      I think what a lot of people (me included) are worried about is that the business models that supported traditional journalists - with these standards, for what they're worth - are diminishing. At the same time, there seems to be a rise in people that are perform journalistic activities (writing news or news-like articles, doing investigation) but are outside the journalistic profession, including bloggers. Will bloggers take up the standards of high-quality journalism? If so, how many? If some do but many do not, what will the impact be on society of so many people aping the acts of journalism while ignoring these standards?

      These are serious questions, but I don't really expect an answer here, because I seriously doubt if anyone has one - one based in research and facts and not anecdote, emotion, or speculation, anyway. I seriously doubt if the people that are professional journalists and bloggers and have 16 hours a day to think about just these things have good answers for these questions.

      We will find out the answers in time, of course, and society will be changed - for better or worse.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 6:30am

        Re: Re:

        "These are characteristics of a highly self-regulating field--other examples include medicine and law."

        Well, medicine is usually supposed to be regulated by the FDA, which is a government entity (not a self regulating entity). Uhm.. You also need a license (government granted) to practice law (ie: the Bar exam), so that seems to be government regulated as well to some extent.

        "There are obvious and numerous examples of newspapers not fact-checking and bloggers getting the real story."

        Which is exactly the point.

        "I think what a lot of people (me included) are worried about is that the business models that supported traditional journalists - with these standards, for what they're worth - are diminishing."

        or perhaps journalists have always been inaccurate and blogs are simply correcting them.

         

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    Eddie Pasternak, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 4:44pm

    It's just an apostrophe

    It's 2009. It's just an apostrophe. Learn how to deal with it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 5:20pm

    Perhaps Mr. Dawkins' background could stand some scrutiny.

    The article byline mentioned that Mr. Dawkins wrote it as a "special" for the NYDN, which makes me wonder what "special" really means.

    A quick search using Google turned only two references relating to Mr. Dawkins. One was the article itself, and the other was a social networking site where next to his name (no photo shown) is a statement that he is a "writer" for the NYDN. Not at all clear what "writer" means. In the NYDN's employ? A freelancer? Other.

    That said, it is sad to see an uplifting story go down in flames when placed under scrutiny.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 5:26pm

      Re:

      "That said, it is sad to see an uplifting story go down in flames when placed under scrutiny."

      This is why blogs are bad, because we're too critical. If everyone just blindly accepted everything the mainstream media said without having critical blogs around we would all be a lot more uplifted and the world would be a much better place. But no, blogs had to ruin that by adding scrutiny and fact checking.

       

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    ..., Sep 2nd, 2009 @ 5:31pm

    And sometimes journalists

    just make stuff up

     

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    Hardik Upadhyay (profile), Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 5:19am

    Gaga over Rappers

    I guess this is very smart move based on the existing market trend. The US education is getting hit by the recent recession. Now if the initiatives are taken by the government to help the people to complete their PhD, i guess it will be very great. You can check my blog for more interesting articles or can follow me on twitter. http://twitter.com/hardikupadhyay

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 6:22am

    Shante also has a twitter account. Wasn't hard to find.

     

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    David (profile), Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 7:20am

    Fact checking

    Good on you to follow up and do some fact-checking. However, I notice that you only did most of it after you posted the original story, even when you had a few suspicions. You are concerned about bloggers being perceived as "just as good as reporters", I guess this proves that.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 8:38am

    You get a medical license from the AMA, which is a self regulating body. Who runs the Bar exams? Another self regulating body.

     

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      anymouse (profile), Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 9:12am

      Re: Going to get my Professional Journalsim license.....

      Great, which self regulating body do I go to get my 'Professional Journalism license'?

      OH what's that you say? There is no self regulating body for Journalism, yet you continue to compare them to Medical/Legal professionals. Epic fail shill. Better luck next time.

       

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    DMNTD, Sep 3rd, 2009 @ 12:15pm

    yeesh

    If it sounds to good to be truuuuue......it is.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 4th, 2009 @ 6:05am

    You should've either a) checked the article *before* you ran it, or b) mentioned the fact that Slate debunked it and you're just covering your...

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Sep 4th, 2009 @ 11:06am

      Re:

      You should've either a) checked the article *before* you ran it,

      We write analysis based on news. We're not reporters ourselves. This site is a conversation, where we post our thoughts based on what's available. If you

      or b) mentioned the fact that Slate debunked it and you're just covering your...

      I wrote this before Slate posted their own version.

      And I did link to their piece once I saw it had come out.

      But that sorta proves the point. Should you have "fact checked" your comment before posting it? Because you got the facts wrong. But you still posted the comment, because you had reason to believe it was true. Same with our original post.

       

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    Dave H (profile), Sep 5th, 2009 @ 6:03am

    this may be just a semantics or a to-may-to, to-mah-to thing, but as I read the Slate articles, that guy doesn't come across as a "friend of the blog". 1) "Credulous music-industry critics lapped it up; Techdirt, after stating flatly that Warner had..." and 2) in his "update" posted Sept 3, 7:19 pm, he says "Techdirt, which trumpeted the original Daily News story, has struck through its entire post. After Slate's piece appeared, Techdirt posted its own debunking of the Daily News story. "

    Also, he claims you posted AFTER him (but, the slate article now only shows the update stamp, so i can't really see when it was published... full disclosure, i'm not looking that hard).

    just sayin.

    On another topic, I'd just like to say that I love reading this site. Unfortunately, I'm about 300 posts behind (Mike, you're too prolific). :-) Have a good holiday.
    DH

     

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    Cody Jackson (profile), Sep 6th, 2009 @ 10:31pm

    Somehow I suspected this

    When I first read the story, it just sounded too good to be true. I'm not denying that an ex-musician, a black woman, or anyone else is incapable of earning degrees, especially a Ph.D. (I'm working on one myself). However, it seems odd that a music company would allow that clause to appear in a contract, much less let it stay upon signing. However, I believe the original article said, essentially, that Warner didn't expect it to be used.

    It is interesting that this story spread so much, considering it's not true. She even admitted it wasn't true, though she still claims that she has degrees but there is no evidence of it. Obviously everyone wanted it to be true, whether as a story of the "little person getting one over on the big, faceless corporation" or because a "disadvantaged, inner city black woman makes good and helps others".

    But I wonder how the story started and spread in the first place. She's not a Doctor, though she apparently claims to be one. She isn't licensed by the state and doesn't have a practice. That was another thing I thought was fishy; she has an "unconventional" clinic yet details weren't provided. What was so special about it?

    All in all, there were a lot of problems w/ the original story that, obviously, fact checking would have uncovered. Essentially, the whole story is bogus. So where did it come from and why?

     

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    Saoili, Sep 8th, 2009 @ 7:42am

    I know I'm going to sound a little like a Spam bot here, so I won't post a link, but I recently listened to the audiobook version of a great book called Flat Earth News by Nick Davis. The basic gist of it is that Newpaper reporters don't fact check, because they simply no longer have the time. The corporations that own them are all about the money, not so much about the truth. Worth a read.

     

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