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.