On Wednesday Village Voice editor Tony Ortega pulled an article from the Voice website after it came out that freelance reporter and recent Columbia grad Rob Sgobbo had fabricated the sources he quoted in the article and lied about his reporting.
Sgobbo is a young education reporter who also worked for the New York Daily News — they fired him today — and graduated from the prestigious (and very expensive) Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2010. In the past, Sgobbo has written for the Huffington Post, the Norwood News, and the Columbia News Service, among other publications.
The Huffington Post has since deleted his posts from the site. Spokesperson Mario Ruiz tells us: “Our policy is that when a blogger is found to have fabricated a story — either on our site or for another outlet — his or her posts automatically come down. We deleted Rob’s posts today in accordance with that policy.”
His Voice piece “For-Profit Blues” examined how for-profit “proprietary” colleges were leaving low-income students without degrees and with high debts.
Central to the piece was a woman named “Tamicka Bourges,” who, according to Sgobbo, told him she had accumulated massive debts while attending Berkeley College, yet never obtained a degree.
In the article [cached version], “Bourges” is described as being “in tears,” and she was “dropping out of Berkeley with no degree and had $25,000 in student loan debt. She didn’t know what to do.”
It would be a compelling story — if it were true.
In his note on Wednesday, Ortega said that they were first tipped off to the problem when Berkeley College denied that one of its spokespersons, Kelly Meisberger, had spoken to Sgobbo. Berkeley later added that it had no record of Bourges as a student.
The question remains as it always does in these cases: Why?
By all accounts Sgobbo was a outstanding student at Columbia.
Former classmates of Sgobbo whom we talked to expressed total shock over the news, describing him as a “star” student. His education resume backs that description up: Sgobbo received honours status in a Columbia seminar last spring, Covering Education, taught by education journalist LynNell Hancock. His beat during that class was community colleges.
In May of last year he was granted the “Hechinger award for education journalism” from the Columbia dean.
Those same classmates, however, also noted Sgobbo was not lacking in confidence.
One classmate from his course, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said “he honestly always did seem somewhat cocky about how easy it was for him to find good sources, but this is like, really brazen.”
*[update] Another former classmate of Sgobbo, Joel Meares, emailed us with the following response: “Without commenting on what Sgobbo did, which was clearly egregious, I have to say as someone who was in the same class as Sgobbo, I only know him as a diligent reporter and very decent human being. Not a braggard, not brazen, and not cocky.” [*See comments section below for additional comments from people who say they attended J-school with Sgobbo.]
Columbia journalism students are notoriously under a lot of pressure to perform, doubly so in a tumultuous media world where jobs are not easy to come by and successful Twitter handles can do battle with a graduate degree.
A number of grad students we spoke to speculated that the pressure was what got Sgobbo. But again, why do it? In this age of Google it’s nearly impossible to get away with falsifying anything and Sgobbo must have known that.
There is also the matter of cost. Columbia journalism school costs approximately $47,000 a year to attend, and while the school is is known to hand out tiny scholarships to top-performing students, they are rarely enough to cover the exorbitant tuition costs. And now all this, and a promising career to boot, is down the drain because of a fabricated source.
We reached out to comment from Sgobbo himself but haven’t heard back. In the time it took to write this piece Sgobbo appears to have deactivated both his Facebook and his Twitter page.
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