A journalist on the crime beat becomes the subject of some skeptical journalism – Washington Post

Kevin Deutsch’s professional life has become a hash of denials and self-justification, a running argument with his doubters. “The truth is on my side,” he wrote earlier this year, “ but . . . who is willing to seek out that truth?”

Deutsch maintains that he was dedicated to doing so. He spent 15 years as a reporter on the criminal-justice beat, reporting on cops, crooks, drugs and thugs. His work attracted few questions, and occasionally rated acclaim, at such newspapers as the Miami Herald, the New York Daily News and Newsday. One of his former editors, Newsday’s Deborah Henley, recalls, “As far as we were aware, there were no issues with his reporting.”

There are many now. Newsday and others began a massive reassessment of Deutsch’s work earlier this year, framed by some troubling questions: Was Deutsch one of journalism’s most prolific frauds? And if he was, why did it take the news organizations he worked for so long to notice?

Deutsch’s reckoning began at what should have been a moment of proud accomplishment. In late January, St. Martin’s Press published his second nonfiction book: “Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire.” Deutsch spent a year reporting a startling and untold story about two Baltimore teenagers, both 18. The young men allegedly masterminded a nationwide drug-distribution ring built on opiates looted from pharmacies and stash houses during the riots that engulfed Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.

In Deutsch’s vivid telling, the tech-savvy teens evaded detection by trafficking through the Internet’s “dark web” and by utilizing an encrypted smartphone app they created. They quoted “The Godfather” and Balzac (“Behind every great fortune there is a crime”) and dubbed their enterprise “an Uber of drug dealing.”

Suspicions about “Pill City” emerged almost as soon as the book did. The Baltimore Sun first raised questions about Deutsch’s reporting in February, followed by an even more probing autopsy by the Baltimore City Paper. Both publications couldn’t substantiate major elements of the book, including the dates, circumstances and victims involved in homicides Deutsch describes in detail. Local detectives, health officials and federal drug-enforcement agents said they had scant evidence of such an elaborate conspiracy.

Deutsch, who is 36 and lives in New York, writes in the book that he changed most of the names used in his story and obscured specific details to protect his sources, including gang members, law-enforcement officials, addicts and doctors. In an author’s note, he says he was an eyewitness to about half the events he describes, with the rest based on interviews (Deutsch did not respond to repeated requests for an interview and declined indirectly through his publisher, which said it stood by the book).

Still, details large and small didn’t add up. An example: On Page 1, Deutsch mentions a pharmacy located at a busy Baltimore intersection; City Paper said there was no pharmacy at that location. He later writes movingly of the overdose death of a pregnant woman and a doctor’s anguished reaction at the shock trauma unit of the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore. But as the Sun pointed out, gunshot and overdose victims are routinely taken to a separate emergency facility, not shock trauma.

Other scenes read like real-life versions of “The Wire,” the fictional HBO series set in Baltimore. In one passage of “Pill City,” a street preacher whistles “Amazing Grace” as he’s gunned down. His killer whistles the same hymn as he drives away.

Among the book’s skeptics was David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who created “The Wire” and other gritty TV series. “After reading, I think this book is, by and large, a wholesale fabrication,” he tweeted.

The questions raised by “Pill City” turned out to be only the beginning of Deutsch’s troubles.

After the Sun article, the New York Times reviewed the only story it had published by him, a freelance piece in December about fentanyl overdoses on Long Island. A lengthy editor’s note attached to the story in February noted that the paper had been “unable to locate or confirm the existence” of two people named in the story, an addiction counselor and a young man described as an overdose victim, and that Deutsch couldn’t provide “any further material to corroborate the account.” Deutsch insisted the men were real but, he wrote later, “unbeknownst to me, [they] apparently supplied me with something other than their legal name.”

But the same issue continued to arise as reporters looked into Deutsch’s stories. The website iMediaEthics identified 14 sources it couldn’t verify in 10 articles Deutsch wrote for Newsday, Newsweek and the Daily News about the Boston Marathon bombing, Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and other topics. Again, Deutsch insisted his sources existed.

The most comprehensive review was undertaken by Newsday, where Deutsch worked from 2012 to 2016. Six Newsday journalists spent four months earlier this year poring over Deutsch’s articles, combing through records and databases and contacting families and officials in an effort to track down his sources.

In July, the paper said it found 109 people whose existence it could not confirm in 77 articles, out of roughly 600 written by Deutsch.

Henley, the paper’s editor, steers clear of characterizing this figure, or imputing intent or motive. But if one assumes that the people Newsday couldn’t find are made up, the number is shocking. Most mainstream news organizations would fire a journalist for a single instance of inventing a source or a quote, let alone dozens and dozens of them. (Henley said Deutsch resigned from the paper last September; she declined to offer details.)

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On the other hand, Newsday gave Deutsch some benefit of the doubt: “On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them,” it wrote in an unbylined article summarizing its investigation. “It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.”

In email exchanges quoted by Newsday, Deutsch pushed back against the implication that his sources were invented.“It’s impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street — or those reached briefly by phone or email — is that person’s full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name. . . . But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

(New York Daily News Editor Arthur Browne said his paper decided not to undertake a similar review of the 688 articles Deutsch wrote for the paper as a staff writer between 2009 and 2012 because of “the passage of time” and because many of his stories carried multiple bylines).

The larger question about Deutsch is why it took so long for questions about his work to surface. Until publication of “Pill City,” he had been a staff reporter for five newspapers and freelanced to four other publications without suspicion.

One possibility is that Deutsch’s questionable sources were merely peripheral to his stories, providing “color” about widely reported events. Few readers might complain about such secondary reporting.

But it’s also possible that a journalist dealing with people on the fringes of society faces less accountability than one reporting in the center of the public square. This was a theme, in fact, of one season of “The Wire,” in which an unethical Baltimore Sun reporter wins a Pulitzer Prize for fabricated stories about the city’s homeless population — a fictitious scenario based in part on a real incident, Janet Cooke’s fabricated reporting for The Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict in 1980.

In each case, a reporter “is writing about people who are fundamentally powerless,” said Nikki Usher, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. “The sources he’s writing about are easy to manipulate, whether they exist or not, because they have no recourse as to how they are represented.”

Deutsch has another theory about why his critics can’t accept his reporting as factual and accurate: They’re just jealous. In a self-written bio accompanying an article on HuffPost last week, he wrote, “Lots of competitors hate [my] work, but that’s their problem.”

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