Juan Thompson, Who Chronicled Tough St. Louis Background for National Media, Fired in Fabrication Scandal


Juan Thompson, a reporter, was fired for allegedly making up quotes. - IMAGE VIA BRICTV ON YOUTUBE.COM
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  • Juan Thompson, a reporter, was fired for allegedly making up quotes.

Juan Thompson, a national reporter who penned vivid essays about growing up poor in St. Louis, has been fired from The Intercept after his editors alleged he made up quotes and covered his tracks with fake email accounts.

The muckraking website's editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, wrote in a note to readers, “Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.”

One of the bogus email addresses was a gmail account opened in Reed’s name, she said.

Corrections now appear on four of Thompson’s stories, including two about St. Louis. The Intercept retracted a fifth story, which was built around a supposedly exclusive interview with the cousin of South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof. Relatives of Roof told The Intercept they’d never heard of the alleged cousin, Scott Roof.

Thompson wrote: “Scott Roof, who identified himself as Dylann Roof’s cousin, told me over the telephone that ‘Dylann was normal until he started listening to that white power music stuff.’ He also claimed that ‘he kind of went over the edge when a girl he liked starting dating a black guy two years back.’”

That inflammatory bit was seen as a scoop for the young reporter and repeated in news stories across the nation. A note appended to the article now says The Intercept “can no longer stand behind the premise of this story.”

In May 2015, Thompson wrote about the murders of black women for a story headlined “ST. LOUIS GRAPPLES — AND FAILS TO GRAPPLE — WITH THE MATTER OF MURDERED BLACK WOMEN.” He included a couple of long quotes from a criminal justice professor — the kind of expert reporters turn to for context. However, the source told The Intercept she has never taught criminal justice, isn’t an expert on the subject and never spoke to Thompson.

A North St. Louis woman quoted in another May 2015 story — “St. Louis Residents Fight to Keep Spy Agency From Taking Their Homes” — says she spoke to several reporters, but she didn’t remember Thompson and would have never said the quote he attributed to her.

Thompson was hired in November 2014 at The Intercept, a site cofounded by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is most famous for breaking national security stories using leaked documents from Edward Snowden. Thompson's dispatches often delved into race and class, including personal essays centered on the struggles of his family in St. Louis.

It wasn't just The Intercept. In July 2015, Thompson wrote a gripping piece for Talking Points Memo, “‘Everybody Has a Killer in Their Family’: Growing Up Black in West St. Louis.” The tale recounted a heritage of shocking violence, starting with a father who supposedly murdered multiple people and ran “one of the most profitable drug networks on the West Side.” His uncles similarly murdered and terrorized their neighborhood, Thompson claimed.

“My family? We know more about such violence than any group of people I’ve ever encountered,” he wrote.

Asked if the essay was true, Thompson told the Riverfront Times in an email, "Truly stand by the TPM piece."

Talking Points Memo, a well-respected left-leaning site, promised to review the essay on Tuesday. It was later replaced with a note from Editor and Publisher Josh Marshall.

The essay was "aggressively fact-checked" before publication and again on Tuesday, Marshall wrote. Each time it seemed to hold up.

"However, this was at heart a personal essay," Marshall wrote. "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."

Ultimately, Marshall decided to pull the story down — "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." 

In response to allegations of fabrication at The Intercept, Thompson forwarded the RFT a defiant letter aimed at his former editor, explaining the quote discrepancies as merely "sloppy." 

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 was 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.

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.

Juan Thompson

Reed told Gawker, which also got Thompson's letter, that she did receive an email from him, but it varied from the one sent to reporters.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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