Questions mount over "Pill City" author's previous reporting

Amid multiple reviews of older stories written by Kevin Deutsch, a new article questions the validity of sources used by the New York journalist and author of "Pill City," a recently released book that claims to chronicle two young teens who created a drug empire immediately after the Baltimore Uprising.

City Paper and The Sun have published stories raising questions about the book, and now media watchdog iMediaEthics alleges that sources Deutsch used in reporting on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando do not exist.

In one story, Deutsch talked with Aahil Khan, a childhood friend of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen who recounted how Mateen told him he cheered as broadcasts of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks played in class. The school district has no record of Aahil Khan attending any schools there, according to the report.

In another instance, Deutsch quoted Eric Baumer, a coworker of Mateen's at the private security company G4S. The company did not have any records to back that up, either, according to iMediaEthics.

Deutsch told iMediaEthics via email that he stood by all of his reporting, adding he has turned over his notes from Orlando to Newsday and is "cooperating fully with reviews of my work."

"I'm eager to show all my stories have met the highest standards of journalistic ethics," Deutsch wrote.

Responding to a request for comment from City Paper, Deutsch wrote in an email: "The story falsely refers to two interviewees I spoke with following the Orlando terrorist attack as 'non-existent sources.' I assured the writer of the piece that these people did, in fact, exist."

He recalled interviewing patrons of a restaurant in Port St. Lucie, Florida named for golf legend Sam Snead and meeting Baumer, "a self-identified security guard."

"He'd overheard my conversation with another customer I was interviewing. We got to talking, and he shared the anecdotes recounted in my article," Deutsch wrote. "What name he worked under or has listed on his birth certificate I can't be certain, but I had no reason to doubt his story."

Regarding Khan, Deutsch wrote, "The reporter's story inaccurately said I'd claimed Khan went to school with Mateen." Indeed, it appears the only place that connection is made explicitly is in the headline

"The site—which holds itself up as an arbiter of good journalistic practice—has refused to correct their error," Deutsch wrote. He again stood behind all of his work.

After publication of this blog, Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics wrote to City Paper noting that the site is still "waiting for [a] response" from Newsday and that, "if Newsday runs a correction admitting a headline error, we would then run a correction acknowledging their error."  

Smith also says that Deutsch didn't bring this classmate issue up with iMediaEthics until after the story had been published though they "asked him specifically about the classmate before publication." 

"Finally," Smith wrote. "While Deutsch says we flat-out called his sources 'non-existent,' we actually said 'iMediaEthics's preliminary investigation of Deutsch's Newsday coverage of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen, already reveals evidence of the same problem in Deutsch’s Times story — namely, quotations from what appear to be non-existent sources.'"

Acknowledging stories about his book here in Baltimore, Deutsch again stressed that he invited reporters from City Paper and The Sun to look at his records in New York.

"There is no truth to claims I cannot corroborate the narrative," he wrote.

During the original reporting of our story, City Paper offered to view redacted documents—in order to honor Deutsch's agreements of anonymity—and he did not provide them.

But questions still loom. Following Justin Fenton's story in The Sun, both the New York Times and Newsday started reviews of Deutsch's previous work. The editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News told iMediaEthics the paper is investigating all of Deutsch's bylined pieces, spanning 2011-2012.

On Feb. 24, the Times appended an editor's note to a Dec. 2016 story on fetanyl, written by Deutsch, saying all of the data was accurate but that the paper could not locate two sources quoted in the story. 

"Mr. Deutsch maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate. But he has not been able to put The Times in contact with either source, or to provide any further material to corroborate the account," the note said. "At this point, editors have concluded that The Times cannot vouch for the accuracy of those sources, and that material has been removed from the online version of the article."

Attempting to talk with the sources in "Pill City" proved a bit more difficult, as Deutsch changed the names of subjects in the book and certain details about events. And as Linda Steiner, a professor of journalism at University of Maryland, told Baltimore Magazine—who earnestly reviewed the book in February—about the controversy, the book's publisher, St. Martin's Press, had no incentive to investigate.

"In this case, no one can say he’s been libeled because they haven’t been named," she told the magazine. "So St. Martin's has no legal responsibility."

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