As you can see in this update here, The Intercept announced this afternoon that it had “discovered a pattern of deception in the actions of a staff member” named Juan Thompson. They further said that Thompson had “gone to great lengths” to produce fake stories. For anyone who has seen these fabulism controversies erupt it is a familiar set of alleged infractions: fabricated quotes, fake email accounts, sources who can’t remember speaking to reporters, quotes that may be valid but can’t be verified. The Intercept made a series of corrections and editor’s notes tied to the affected pieces, including retracting one piece entirely.
Last summer, in our since-discontinued section The Slice, TPM published a freelance story by Thompson, then still a staffer at The Intercept, on the role of criminal violence in his own family. The piece was aggressively fact-checked. I know this because I was peripherally involved in the process at the time. And this has been confirmed this afternoon by a further review of emails, notes and discussions with relevant TPM staffers.
Any editor in such a position wants to go back and find that the people who work for him or her asked all the right questions, pressed the right uncertainties and so forth. That’s what we found.
However, this was at heart a personal essay. While various facts could be independently verified, the great bulk of the story rests on the author’s immediate personal experiences – incidents, conversations, memories, etc. which simply cannot be independently verified. One of the dirty little secrets of fact-checking is that it is quite difficult to uncover a determined effort to deceive. The process is most effective at uncovering sloppiness, missed questions or short-cuts done in good faith by a reporter with the right intentions. To uncover fraud you go on reputation, personal interactions and looking for that detail or claim that just doesn’t fit.
With all this said, we have no reason to believe – apart from the revelations published today by The Intercept – that there are falsehoods contained in the Thompson piece we published. However, particularly with a personal essay, the integrity of the piece rests inevitably on the good faith of the writer – a fundamental trust that he or she is being straight with us as editors and you as readers. While we do not and are in no position to make accusations of our own, the revelations of today leave that trust irrevocably broken.
So we have decided to remove the article from the site – not because we are saying that it contains falsehoods or errors but because we can no longer say to you as readers that we are confident to a reasonable certainty that it does not, which I take to be the implicit promise behind everything we publish.
As the Editor and Founder of TPM, I take full responsibility for this. We will continue to be diligent, rigorous and when necessary even a bit paranoid to be certain of the integrity of everything we publish at TPM.