Breach of Trust
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TERENCE SMITH: The credibility of the news media took another blow late last week with the revelation that a reporter for USA Today, the nations’ largest circulation newspaper, had fabricated or plagiarized portions of articles over the last ten years.
Jack Kelley, the newspaper’s star foreign correspondent, resigned in January after an initial review of his work concluded he had invented sources. At the time, Kelley admitted misleading editors in their investigation but denied that his stories were false. Neither Kelley nor his attorney commented on the paper’s latest examination of his work.
The review, conducted by five reporters and one editor from the paper, continues under the guidance of a three-member panel of eminent former editors from outside the paper.
On Friday, the paper printed a two-page preliminary finding on Kelley’s transgressions. Among the stories Kelley was said to have embellished or fabricated: An August, 2001 eye-witness account of a suicide bombing in central Jerusalem for which he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; a story describing the attempted escape of six Cubans who, Kelley claimed, drowned en route to the U.S.; and a piece about the hunt for al-Qaida in Pakistan during 2002.
The Kelley revelations come amid a scandal-filled year for newspapering. Last May, reporter Jayson Blair left The New York Times after it was found he had fabricated or plagiarized parts of dozens of stories.
That episode sent shockwaves through The Times and the industry as a whole.
Subsequent examinations by different newspapers have found improprieties by reporters from at least ten other news organizations.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are Geneva Overholser, journalism professor at the University of Missouri, and former editor of The Des Moines Register and ombudsman at The Washington Post, and Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He is a former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is one of the three outside journalists overseeing the USA Today investigation. Welcome to you both.
Bill Kovach, since you’ve been looking into this now for weeks, these Jack Kelley stories, give us an example of what you’ve turned up in terms of a story that as you learned was fabricated.
BILL KOVACH: Well, Terry, let me first say that it was been a very frustrating, sad and depressing time for John Seigenthaler, Bill Hilliard and me to sit around across the table from what was the star reporter for the newspaper for 20 hours and try to get him to realize what he had done.
TERENCE SMITH: Confronting him with –
BILL KOVACH: Confront his own failure and his own fabrications. The Sbarro story that you led with is –
TERENCE SMITH: That’s the explosion in Jerusalem, the Sbarro Restaurant.
BILL KOVACH: Yes, he was one of the first reporters on the scene, he had access to one of the most horrific stories of anybody’s career and he had to make it better by including things that never happened. The police reports, all the evidence shows it never happened. And after 27 hours, he still would not accept the fact that he had not seen what was not there.
TERENCE SMITH: He simply stone walled and said he had.
BILL KOVACH: To the end.
TERENCE SMITH: What was your reaction, confronted with that?
BILL KOVACH: Incredulity. What do you do? What do you do when information that’s collected by a team of reporters, police reports, photographs, documents, and his own witnesses, people that he put us in touch with that he said would support his version of the story, who said, ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about, it’s not the story I saw’.
TERENCE SMITH: So the whole thing simply collapsed?
BILL KOVACH: Simply collapsed, it was after months of investigation.
TERENCE SMITH: And are you looking into the question of why someone didn’t pick up on — why his editors didn’t pick up on this earlier?
BILL KOVACH: Part of our responsibility, Craig Moon, the publisher, charged us with the responsibility of also looking at the structure and the leadership and the organizational problems, the culture inside the newsroom, and while we were helping with the investigation or monitoring the investigation of the team of reporters who did an extraordinary job as you can tell from the stories you read in the paper, while we were doing that we were also interviewing present and past staff members on just those questions — the culture, the leadership, the organization. We have already talked to over 70 people. And they continue to work with us and people are calling from the staff and from former workers at the organization, and we’ll make a report to the publisher, hopefully in the next few weeks.
TERENCE SMITH: Geneva Overholser, is it reasonable to expect editors to catch this sort of fabrication, in case of course it was a pattern of fabrication?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: There’s no fool proof way to be sure you always catch it, Terry, I think we’ll all agree.
But I can’t help but wonder if part of what we’re seeing in journalism recently is a weakening of the editing ranks, a thinning of the editing ranks, in part because of cost cutting. You don’t get rid of your star reporters, as Bill said Jack Kelley was the star reporter of the nation’s largest circulation newspaper. You’re not going to toy with that, but I can’t help wondering if having stronger editing ranks at USA Today could have been an important part of this. I know they did catch some of the excesses. I wish they could have caught more. But when I heard the publisher comment — publisher Craig Moon — say we’re going to set up a system now to ensure these kinds of abuses don’t happen again, good luck.
TERENCE SMITH: Yet this is part of a pattern now as we mentioned earlier. Ten cases of either fabrication or plagiarizing found in newspapers in the last ten months, so you have to ask yourself what’s going on here.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: We should ask ourselves that. I do think it’s important to say first of all most reporters are honest and are not plagiarizing and they’re not fabricating, they are really hard working and I think it’s important for the public to know that and believe it.
It’s good we’re hearing a lot about this. There have always been fabricators, everybody I know in the newsroom has a story about some old fellow who used to sit in a bar and make up something. That doesn’t mean it was common, but it did happen, and we now see that it happens.
And now when it happens we all here about it. You wouldn’t have heard about Macon, Georgia or the Iowa State University Daily ten years ago if it had happened, now we hear about it and that’s good, we can do more about it.
TERENCE SMITH: Bill Kovach, are we hearing more about it or is there more going on?
BILL KOVACH: I don’t know if we can quantify more or less. Clearly plagiarism has been going on since people began to write.
But the fact that we’re hearing more about it I think is the most positive sign. The thing I’m most confident about is that all of these cases have come out of the newsroom, reporters and editors who care have brought these cases to the fore.
They came about because reporters inside USA Today sent a memo to the executive editor. Inside The New York Times there were complaints about this reporter and the news organization itself, the staff, went to work to expose the problem, make it transparent to the public.
I think this new movement toward more transparency for news organizations to become as transparent as they insist other organizations become, is going to help us all. There’s not another business, there’s not another working place that I know of that throws up its own questions the way the press has. CPA’s, for example, don’t turn up CPA’s investigate themselves and put out a report.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you both think are the repercussions for the public in this, for the reader?
There was a Pew Research Center study last summer that said 56 percent of those people surveyed said news organizations often report inaccurately. What are they supposed to think, what’s the reader supposed to think when confronted with stories like this?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, it seems that that hasn’t gone down a great deal in the past year, which is probably a good sign, or it may simply mean that our credibility was so low that not a lot can be done.
But one thing I hope they’ll think, Terry, is they should demand this kind of response from newsrooms when they do detect problems, but one thing I wish they would demand is a less frequent use of anonymous sources. I think we cannot overstate the degree to which anonymity lies at the root of so many of these scandals, and really tragedies. And readers can say –
TERENCE SMITH: Because reporters find it too easy to attribute things to anonymous sources?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: It’s far too easy and it’s harder to the editor to track them down.
BILL KOVACH: An anonymous source may not exist. And I do believe we’re headed in that direction. The New York Times has new rules, Leonard Downie described new Washington Post rules a couple weeks ago in the newspaper.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: As long as they’re enforced and observed.
BILL KOVACH: As long as they’re enforced. Greg Moore at the Denver Post has put out now rules that include if you use wire service stories that are from anonymous sources you call the wire service and ask them to describe the source. Their editors are now beginning to put into place the kind of editing structure that Geneva is talking about that will more carefully monitor the system inside. That’s what we have to start with.
TERENCE SMITH: So with a little hope and a little luck perhaps it might actually improve as a result of all this?
BILL KOVACH: And a lot of public pressure that says your creditability is all I really care about, help me believe what you do.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: And the publishers have to believe that as well as the editors.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, Geneva Overholser, Bill Kovach, thank you very much.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thank you.