Friday, March 8, 2013

Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Curious Vanity Fair Article on Stephanie Lazarus, Part VII

Complete Series on Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Article HERE.

Continued from Part VI...

As my readers know, the Rasmussen family's lawsuit against the LAPD ended on February 20th, when the California Supreme Court declined to take up the family's appeal. The California Courts of Appeal had rejected the Rasmussen's lawsuit in November 2012, on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

Thankfully, there is no statute of limitations on crimes against journalism, so I've decided to revisit this series.

Mark Bowden’s article on the Stephanie Lazarus case ran in the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.  The first time I read Bowden's article, something immediately struck me as off.  I began writing about it a few weeks later, pointing out a number of factual mistakes in Bowden's piece. I also pointed out a number of places in the article where Bowden's quotes did not match the official court transcript of Stephanie's 2009 pre-arrest interview. It was one of Bowden's misquotes that initially inspired me to fact-check the rest of the article. Vanity Fair did not respond or make any corrections.

A week later I wrote another post, raising more questions. Vanity Fair again ignored me.  Additional posts followed in July (Part III) and August (Part IV).  In September, Poynter picked up the story.  Craig Silverman's lengthy post included numerous quotes from Cullen Murphy, Bowden's editor at Vanity Fair, but no quotes from Bowden himself.  Vanity Fair offered a series of changing explanations for how Bowden's article came to be published with so many mistakes. Some of Vanity Fair's statements impugned my credibility, which I found ironic, since Craig Silverman's findings substantiated my claims. Cullen Murphy also told Poynter that at Vanity Fair, “We take fact-checking very seriously, and when issues arise we look into them carefully.”

After Poynter’s story ran, Vanity Fair quietly made some corrections to the online version of Bowden’s article but left many others uncorrected.  To date, Vanity Fair has refused to run any correction in the print magazine.

Last October, I contacted Cullen Murphy via email and tried to engage him. Murphy would not speak with me on the record about Bowden's article.  I expressed my interest in communicating with Bowden via email. I made it clear that I was very interested to hear from Bowden, but it would need to be on the record.

Through all of this, Bowden has been curiously silent. Until recently, I'd never met Mark Bowden.  For the record, I have nothing against him personally. I think he's an amazing storyteller. He's also a professor of journalism.  I thought I would try to contact him directly.

Through a source, I obtained Mark Bowden’s email address. I first emailed him on October 25th:
Dear Mr. Bowden,

I’m sorry I haven’t written you sooner.  I only recently learned your email address. 

I understand you were interested in having a conversation with me.  Was there something specific you wanted to ask or tell me?

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog
When I didn’t hear back, I thought maybe I had his address wrong.  So I wrote him again on November 5th, this time cc’ing Cullen Murphy, whose email address I did have.
Dear Mr. Bowden,

I emailed you on October 25th (see below).  In case you missed it or I had your address wrong, I am cc-ing your editor at Vanity Fair, Cullen Murphy, who I corresponded with last month.

Hope to hear from you soon.


Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog
On November 9th, I tried one more time:
Dear Mr. Bowden,

I’m disappointed I’ve not heard back from you. 

Was there something specific you wanted to tell me? Is there anything at all you would like to say to my readers?

I hope to include your perspective in my next post.  If you respond by Tuesday evening, I will publish your response in full.

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog
A week later I learned that Bowden's book tour for his latest book, The Finish, included a stop at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on November 17th.  I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce myself to Bowden and see if he would engage me and hopefully speak on the record. I've always loved going to Vroman's, a literary landmark that’s been in business for 118 years.  I’ve been there many times to meet authors and get books signed.  I marked the date on my calendar.

That Saturday afternoon I arrived early at the bookstore and bought a copy of The Finish. Not knowing how Bowden would react when I introduced myself, I took a friend for moral support. I climbed the stairs to the lecture area and took a seat in the back row.  I got comfortable and waited for the lecture to begin.

Bowden spoke extemporaneously for half an hour about his book and his career in journalism. Bowden said something about his writing becoming history that seems relevant to his article on the Stephanie Lazarus case. He said, “I found over and over again in my career, that the story -- if I told a story well enough -- that it is remembered. And that it enters our popular memory. It becomes a piece of history.”

After Bowden's remarks and some audience questions, I got in the long line of people waiting to get their books signed.  It was evident that Bowden was enjoying the attention of his fans. The man in line in front of me was very excited to meet Bowden and asked for a picture with him.  Smiling, Bowden stood beside his fan for the photo op. And then it was my turn.  I stepped up to the table, smiled at Bowden and said, “I’m so glad I came to hear you speak today. Hello Mr. Bowden, I’m Betsy Ross, the blogger.”

Bowden's smile immediately left his face when I introduced myself.  “Oh... hi,” he replied.  I reminded Bowden that I had sent him some emails.  Bowden confirmed that he had received them by telling me,  “Well, you asked if I had any questions of you, and I don’t.” He then added: “But if you had any questions for me."  I asked him if he would answer an email. Bowden was non-committal. There were people waiting in line behind me, so I thanked Bowden and handed him my book.

The next day I wrote to Bowden again:
Dear Mr. Bowden,

I enjoyed listening to you speak at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena yesterday, as well as meeting you in person.

During our brief conversation, you said you had not replied to my earlier emails because you didn’t have questions for me. You then asked if I had any questions for you.  I have several questions about your article on the Stephanie Lazarus case.

In a story published by Poynter in late September, your editor at Vanity Fair, Cullen Murphy, provided the following detailed statement:

"The central charge made by T&T is that Mark Bowden does not accurately quote the interrogation of Stephanie Lazarus and in one instance even adds his own material. This is false... The author of the T&T post relied on a transcript of the interrogation. Bowden, rather than use some unknown person’s transcript—transcripts are notoriously unreliable—went to the actual videos of the interrogation to confirm his quotations. Further, to make sure the speakers were being identified correctly, the quotations were read back to Detectives Stearns and Jaramillo of the LAPD. When the article was published, Vanity Fair put the videos online to make the source readily available. On review, we confirmed that Bowden’s quotations are indeed accurate and that the transcript is not. (We did find that two sentences in a single quotation in the VF piece had been inadvertently transposed, with no impact on meaning.)"

In a second statement to Poynter, Murphy acknowledged “we were mistaken” and apologized for “inadvertently introducing a red herring.”

I don’t understand how such a detailed statement could be made inadvertently. Did you provide the information for Murphy’s initial statement? To your knowledge, is any part of Murphy’s initial statement true?

Are you aware that there are additional quotes you attribute to Stephanie Lazarus and Detectives Jaramillo and Stearns that do not match the video and official transcript? The official transcript I’m referring to was released to the public in November 2010, eighteen months before your article hit newsstands. Can you explain how these inaccurate quotes came to be published?   As a journalist, do you still stand behind your account of the interview?

Thank you for signing my book and I hope to hear from you soon.  If you respond by next Sunday (November 25th), I will include your full response in my next post.

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials and Tribulations
I'm still waiting to hear from Bowden. 

Continued in Part VIII....


hetherfly said...

Sounds like you shouldn't hold your breath . I won't be buying anything he writes, and as a long time subscriber to Vanity Fair, I'm very disappointed by their behaviour as well.

Anonymous said...

i admire your tenacity and ability to keep your cool. bowden's dodging you because he knows you're right. his unwillingness to own up to his mistakes shows a real lack of character and integrity.

Anonymous said...

Bowden: yet another narcissist who calls himself a truthful journalist, making money and earning respect. Not shocking, but what is disappointing to say the least is that VF is backing him on this issue. I've been buying the magazine for several years and believe their rep has been severely tainted by this mess.

Thanks Betsy for being tireless in the pursuit of the truth - keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Q: What's the difference between Sprocket and the character Maya in ZERO DARK THIRTY?

A: Sprocket really exists!

Anonymous said...

Speaking about books.....what about Matthew's book about Stephanie? It has been over one year and still nothing? You also mentioned that you were going to give us information that you had from her friends from high school and we never got that either.

Sprocket said...

Matthew is still working very hard on his book. He checks in with me on a regular basis as to how it's going. I've been helping him when I can with a bit of research.

As far as writing about Stephanie, I'm sorry, but that story had to take a back seat to my real life responsibilities. Some of the information I had planned to write about I decided would be best served to be included in Matthew's book. I hope to eventually write about her from the perspective of people who knew her who contacted me.

You may remember that I
wrote about Mr. Sprocket becoming so ill he needed to be hospitalized last October. When he came home, he was connected to a device for a month that delivered a powerful antibiotic every four hours. That medication zapped his energy and he couldn't do much at all. His recovery took several months. Then I came down with an upper respiratory infection that kept me from going to court for over two months.

T&T is a public service. I don't get paid a salary for the time and energy I put into going to court and writing for T&T. All the income T&T earns is through donations from readers like yourself. Those donations don't nearly cover my travel expenses and notebooks.

Currently, Mr. Sprocket and I have had to focus our energies on building his business to support ourselves. I hope you understand.


Tezi said...


Thank you for all you do! I greatly appreciate all of your hard work. I hope you and Mr. Sprocket are feeling better!

Robert said...

Betsy, you're the bomb...

You've had none of the training Bowden has, you have none of the credentials he has, but your trial reporting has become the gold standard in the Los Angeles Superior Court system. Your research is accurate and detailed, your copy is clean and you have something Mr. Bowden apparently is short on... integrity.

One word of advice... keep doing what you are doing but take yourself and your hobby a little more seriously. You're a good writer/researcher and should be able to monetize this labor of love. I'd go to Vroman's and stand in line to buy your book about the Spector trial or about the Lazarus trial because I love your blog. So... if you've already done the footwork, why not get paid for it?

Whatever you decide you have lots of fans.

Anonymous said...

I apologize if someone else has made this coomment, but it concerns Mark Bowden describing Stephanie Lazarus as "legendary" within the LAPD. Wouldn't the term "legendary" to describe a LAPD detective refer to someone like Rick Jackson?

David In TN

Maddie said...

After having just spent five days with a polydactyl cat, I give you eight thumbs up! :-) Very well done, indeed.

Robert, as always, has hit the nail on the head.

Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

So anxious for Matthew's book. Any updates on when it will be out?

Sprocket said...

All I can tell you is, he's still working on it. Matthew has promised me that I will be one of the first to announce when it will be released by the publisher.

Carol said...

Hi Betsy,

Just a note sending many and hearty good wishes to you and Mr. Sprocket!
I've been following the Rockefeller trial, and while the coverage is of course very good, I sorely miss your special touch. Especially today, with Dr. Herold's testimony. Not to mention the couture choices on display at the defense table.
But I know you have more pressing matters to handle, and I wish you all the best. Thank you for your great work!

Sprocket said...

So kind of you Carol!

DANG! I had heard from reporters today in the Gargiulo hearing that forensic experts were going to testify, but no one knew if it would be Dr. Herold. Shoot, shoot, shoot! I missed her! I'm hoping "maybe" I can get a seat tomorrow if she's still on the stand.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Ross, as a journalist I understand your ire at VF, but at some point you need to drop it. At some point you enter the creepy zone. I much prefer LA Magazine's crime reporting, which accurately reports Lazarus' assignment to an elite dept at LAPD. As you know that unit is the only two person art unit in the country. Legendary? Debatable, but certainlu jot run of the mill.

Sprocket said...

Anonymous @ 9:58 PM,

Let's just say, we agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

in response to Anonymous Journalist at 9:58p on 3/31:

I think it's pretty creepy that a fellow journalist would call you "creepy" for insisting on accuracy in reporting. If only more journalists had the courage and integrity to take similar stands, maybe there wouldn't be so much misinformation out there.

Ignore the trolls Sprocket! You have right on your side.

Anonymous said...

Just read another of Bowden's articles about a murder, again in VF (May 2013). I have no reason to think it's inaccurate, but I kept accurate is all of this. Made for an annoying read.

Anonymous said...

I just read Bowden's new VF story and had the same experience of it. Interesting murder mystery but I can't help but wonder what's real and what's "legendary"

Anonymous said...

May 2013 Vanity Fair, page 67:

"Correction: On page 286 of the March issue ("When the Spec Script Was King"), Evarts Ziegler's name was misspelled."

Thank God they cleared that up!