What Went Wrong?
Jack Kelley, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist
and star reporter with USA Today, resigned on Jan. 6, 2004, saying an ongoing
investigation into his reporting had made the work environment at the nation's
largest newspaper too hostile for him to continue.
The paper had launched
the inquiry into Kelley's work after someone at the paper sent an anonymous complaint
about the reporter in May 2003 to the newspaper's executive editor, Brian Gallagher.
the paper's staff focused on a single July 14, 1999 story Kelley had written about
Yugoslavia in which he reported seeing a three-ring notebook that included specific
documents about the ethnic cleansing and killings in a Kosovar village. The paper's
investigator could not find anyone to collaborate the story, but when he asked
Kelley about it, the reporter supplied the name of a translator who could confirm
As it would turn out, the translator was reading from a version of the
story told her by Kelley. This obstruction, coupled with the suspicion that Kelley,
then 43 years old, could not legitimately confirm his account, lead to his dismissal.
tumultuous end to the career of a reporter once hailed by the Pulitzer committee
for his "wide-ranging and prescient reporting on centers of foreign terrorism,
often conducted at personal risk," prompted the editors at the newspaper that
same month to launch a more expanded review of Kelley's work over concerns that
the former star correspondent's misconduct might go deeper than a single story.
That review, headed by John Siegenthaler, the founding editorial director
of the paper, at first cast a wide net to vet some 720 stories written by Kelley
and ultimately uncovered an alarming number of journalistic transgressions.
soon became clear that Kelley had on several occasions embellished and/or completely
fabricated situations he said he saw first-hand, lifted quotes without attribution
and drafted scripts for his sources aimed at assuaging his editor's concerns about
The final report would be more blunt and critical, not just of
Kelley but of a newsroom culture that allowed Kelley to mislead USA Today editors
and its readers.
"Any appraisal of how Jack Kelley got away with years of
fraudulent news reporting at USA Today, despite numerous, well-grounded warnings
that he was fabricating stories, exaggerating facts and plagiarizing other publications,
must begin with this question: Why did newsroom managers at every level of the
paper ignore, rebuff and reject years of multiple serious and valid complaints
about Kelley's work?" the final report, made public on April 22, said.
investigation said that Kelley's questionable reporting dated back to at least
1991 and that despite numerous concerned comments from editors and reporters,
his "star" status and perceived support from the highest echelon of the newspaper
kept editors from thoroughly scrutinizing his work.
review board also blasted the newspaper's editors for failing to enforce their
own stated policies, especially in regards to the use of unnamed sources.
reviewing his work it was clear that editing standards on his use of unnamed sources
was appallingly lax," the report read. "His ability to get away with obscuring
any reliable trace of who his sources were is a testament to his ability to deceive
and to the inability of his editors to demand that he prove their authenticity."
report also criticized the newspaper's bureaucratic structure that limited interaction
between reporters and editors and even between editors.
"It is ironic that
staff members of the daily that communicates with more readers than any other
publication in the nation, failed for years to communicate effectively among themselves
about the problems of the reporter who disgraced himself and humiliated his newspaper,"
the investigators wrote.
What made detection harder for the editors who
supervised him and the reporters who later investigated him is that Kelley's reporting
was often solid and his stories, even those that relied on anonymous sources,
At least four major front-page stories on Afghanistan, the
former Yugoslavia and several others turned out to be incisive investigative pieces.
But it was the dozens of transgressions that brought Kelley's downfall
-- a fact he later admitted in a statement after being confronted by the paper's
"I have made a number of serious mistakes that violate the
values that are most important to me as a person and as a journalist. I recognize
that I cannot make amends for the harm I have caused to my family, friends and
colleagues. Nor can I make it up to readers who depend upon good journalism to
understand a chaotic and confusing world. I can only offer my sincere apology
to those I have let down. Although I remain proud of much of the work I did over
21 years, I understand that what I did wrong will diminish what I did right,"
Kelley said in an e-mailed statement the newspaper published in April 2004.
the end, the USA Today investigation concluded Kelley made up all or part of 20
stories that appeared in the paper, lifted more than 100 passages and quotes from
other, uncredited sources and billed the newspaper for thousands of dollars for
translators and assistants that they say they never received.
Did News of Kelley's Deception Come out?
Following the paper's initial
investigation in 2003, USA Today chose to treat the investigation as "a confidential
personnel matter." The newspaper's editors had made their decision, telling Kelley
on Jan. 5, 2004 that he could resign in the next two days or be fired.
Jan. 8, The Washington Post's media analyst Howard Kurtz published a report on
the incident that characterized Kelley as "a USA Today correspondent who has repeatedly
risked his life in war zones around the world" and quoted unnamed colleagues of
Kelley as saying the paper's investigation was "deeply unfair" and "wrongly suggested
that Kelley might be another Jayson Blair."
paper's editor, Karen Jurgensen, also said initially that USA Today would not
be correcting any of Kelley's stories "at this time," leading many in the media
to question how fair the newspaper had treated an almost universally liked reporter
and whether Kelley was actually culpable of falsifying his stories.
days of back and forth in the media, the executives at USA Today finally began
to make public the whole story of their investigation into Kelley.
reason for ending Kelley's employment was that he engaged in an elaborate deception
during an investigation into his work," USA Today editor Jurgensen said on Jan.
13. "He admitted that he engaged in conduct designed to deceive the investigation."
In a lengthy statement aimed at explaining the decision to fire Kelley,
Jurgensen detailed the investigation into a single story by Kelley and how the
veteran reporter tried to impede that inquiry.
also issued a statement focusing on the same investigation and remained defiant.
"I walk away from USA Today knowing that in 21 years I have never had a
correction or retraction printed," Kelley said in the January statement run by
the paper. "Every story published under my byline was accurate based on what I
saw, the interviews conducted and the details available at that time."
the story was not over and it was largely the reporters at USA Today and, to a
lesser extent, the Baltimore Sun that continued to examine and track down Kelley's
As part of the internal review, USA Today reporters closely
scrutinized more than 100 of Kelley's articles, narrowing their investigation
from the 720 articles that the review board first checked for plagiarism and fabrications.
Seven weeks into their investigation, USA Today issued a series of scathing
articles that eviscerated several of Kelley's most notable stories, including
an Aug. 10, 2001 story about a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that Kelley falsely
claimed to witness and a Nov. 26, 2001 story on terrorist training camps run by
Osama bin Laden that Kelley had actually plagiarized from several news sources.
publication of those articles, followed by the release of a major report that
blasted both Kelley as a liar and the management of the paper for allowing him
to get away with it, highlighted the newspaper's very public self-examination.
Baltimore Sun continued to focus attention on the editors' unwillingness to listen
to reporters and sources who were questioning the veracity of Kelley's work. The
Sun also reported on Jurgensen's eventual departure over the scandal, while quoting
reporters and editors as saying Jurgensen should not be blamed for the Kelley
"The editor who is least responsible for Jack Kelley is the one
who has to leave, and that is wrong," veteran USA Today reporter Tom Squitieri
told the Sun in March 2004.
Between the two papers, more than two dozen
articles and reports on the Kelley inquiry were published between January 2004
and the end of April, many of them detailing how Kelley got away with his deception,
and nearly as many focusing on the effort to reform the paper and hold editors
What Did the Paper Do About It?
chastened by the slow and painful revelations by The New York Times in the Jayson
Blair investigation, USA Today wasted no time appointing an independent review
board to oversee the work of one editor, five reporters and two researchers who
focused on examining the scores of questionable articles by Kelley.
three veteran editors -- Siegenthaler; Bill Hilliard, former editor of The Oregonian
of Portland, and Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists
-- headed an independent inquiry which included more than 20 hours of interviews
The first round of stories generated by the team of reporters
and overseen by the investigating panel appeared on March 18, 2004. The initial
series of reports laid bare a much broader case against Kelley than had been revealed
when he left the paper in January.
The lead article explained that reporters
had "found strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least
eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing
publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead
those investigating his work."
One of the lead investigators, Bill Kovach,
spoke on the NewsHour on March 22 about the difficult job of confronting Kelley
with the accumulated evidence.
"It has 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," Kovach told Terence Smith.
than a month later, the three editors submitted their full report to publisher
Craig Moon. The inquiry criticized a culture of fear that made reporters loath
to question the paper's star reporter and a lax editing structure that allowed
Kelley to use unnamed sources in violation of the paper's own rules.
Fallout from the Internal Review
Two days before the final report's release,
Jurgensen on April 20 retired from USA Today, becoming the first professional
casualty of the Kelley controversy.
In a six-paragraph memo to staffers,
publisher Craig Moon said Jurgensen's "retirement opens the door to move the USA
Today brand forward under new leadership. A search for a new editor is underway.
We will fill the position as soon as possible."
Many observers saw the
decision as unfortunate, but to many, it was a necessary step.
me very sad. It makes me sad because the staffs of these fine newspapers have
suffered. It makes me sad because newspaper people across America and other journalists
suffer because of the credibility issues this raises with the public," former
Washington Post ombudsmen Geneva Overholser said on the NewsHour just after Jurgensen
retired. "In the end, I think it was essential that someone -- and after all,
Karen was the chief news executive at this moment, however unfair the immediate
connections may or may not be -- had to step down."
Jurgensen's departure was just the first in a sweeping series of staff changes
and reorganization the paper would undergo in April.
Two day's later, Hal
Ritter, the managing editor of USA Today's News section, resigned and executive
editor Brian Gallagher said he would leave his position as well.
don't think anyone could possibly be more upset about the Kelley mess than I am,"
USA Today quoted Ritter as saying in a statement. "I love our newspaper dearly.
My departure will make it easier for my colleagues in News to continue the job
of making the newspaper even greater."
On April 29, the paper completed
its major newsroom shakeup, naming Ken Paulson as editor.
Asked by the paper
if this meant the Kelley scandal could be closed, Paulson cautioned, "When a newspaper's
credibility is damaged, it's never quite over. We have to be vigilant and protect
the integrity of USA Today on a daily basis."
The paper has also attempted
to address many of the issues raised by the independent review.
that has been bolstered in the wake of the Kelley scandal was that of the Reader
Editor. Although the position had existed for several years, Paulson moved to
raise its prominence. In every edition of the paper, a photo of Reader Editor
Brent Jones appears on the editorial page, soliciting feedback and concerns about
USA Today's coverage.
Jones then takes that feedback into a daily meeting
with editors at the paper. He told the Online NewsHour that, "readers appreciate
having a direct line of communication" with the editors of the paper and that
the overall reaction has been "positive."
But one of the major editorial
changes came in the paper's approach to the use of unnamed sources, one of the
major methods Kelley used to cover up his more questionable stories.
than two months after arriving at the paper, Paulson required that one of the
paper's five managing editors or a higher ranking editor must agree to the use
of each unnamed source.
"And the managing editor has to make a judgment
that the source is absolutely essential to the story and the value to readers
outweighs the potential damage to our credibility," Paulson told Editor & Publisher
in June 2004.
Previously, reporters only needed to inform their direct
supervisor of the anonymous source's identity.
Finally the paper created
a standards and development editor position to monitor how the reporters and editors
are adhering to the established policies.
Both the personnel and structural
changes are aimed at one goal: to dissipate the "bit of a cloud" the entire scandal
has put over the work of USA Today's reporters and editors, according to those
involved in the paper's management.
"These have been difficult weeks and
months for the able journalists who make up the staff of USA Today," publisher
Craig Moon said upon release of the scathing review in April 2004. "We rely heavily
on them to assure a bright future for the nation's newspaper."
By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour