The tough job of catching a falling star

January 26, 2004
A star reporter with the country’s biggest newspaper, USA Today, was forced to quit early this month. The reporter, Jack Kelley, admitted to engineering a hoax to authenticate a story. It was a 1999 article about mass murder in Kosovo. Pressured, Kelley could not prove he had seen the document that was the basis for the report. He arranged for a Russian woman to tell his bosses she had been his translator and could vouch for the story, which was a lie.

Kelley had been with the newspaper since its launch in 1982. He had been a favored son. He reported from 90 countries; the paper nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize repeatedly; he was a finalist in 2002. He even co-authored two books with USA Today’s founder Al Neuharth.

USA Today had spent seven months investigating the 43-year-old reporter’s work. According to the Washington Post, the inquiry, which was inconclusive, was triggered by an anonymous letter to the newspaper’s publisher in June. That was right after the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, where a young reporter was fired for fabricating and plagiarizing. In response, USA Today’s executive editor invited staff members with concerns about accuracy to come forward.

The letter, apparently from a colleague, said Kelley used quotes that were “obviously fake,” that didn’t “sound like the way people talk.” It asked how he could “”arrive in virtually any foreign land, not speak a word of the language, and within an hour or two come up with pithy quotes.”

Those are just the questions a sharp editor might ask. They also had occurred to some of Kelley’s fellow reporters over the years.

One USA Today staffer knew of 10 colleagues who had expressed doubts about Kelley’s work to bosses, the New York Times reported. The concerns were dismissed as motivated by envy. Some staffers kept “crude dossiers” on Kelley. They noted implausible elements in his stories. Others have documented close similarities in detail and language between his work and stories published elsewhere.

Says the Times: “… The extent to which these concerns reached upper management is not clear.”

The paper’s editor, Karen Jurgensen, acknowledged that a War Crimes Tribunal official in The Hague had expressed skepticism to another USA Today reporter about the document on which Kelley based that 1999 Kosovo story. “At that time, the reporter did not pass the complaint on to editors,” Jurgensen wrote.

So over a 21-year career, a frontline reporter on a 2.2 million circulation national daily appears to compile a stellar record of quality. In his slipstream, though, his peers – highly qualified observers – are left deeply suspicious of his methods and truthfulness.

And for years, nothing happens.

n other professions, say law or medicine, cosseting a suspected wrongdoer provokes outrage. We despair when the inept or the crooked are sheltered so that they can continue to harm. Both professions have suffered because of a clubby forbearance and even protectiveness toward dubious practitioners.

But journalism? At its core is a duty to right wrongs. Why not the same zeal within its own midst?

One reason is the leathery habit — more an institutional reflex — of repelling criticism. Coverage is always under attack. The barbarians are perpetually camped right outside. So comforting fictions arise, like the notion that criticism from both adversaries in a fight attests to balance (rather than gross incompetence, which is equally plausible.)

Beyond that, the ability to root out journalistic wrongdoing is hobbled by the way news organizations are run. The people with the keenest understanding of what’s wrong with a reporter’s work may well be other reporters. But they typically have scant opportunity to review and comment on coverage, little institutional role in newsroom management. Editors meet regularly, reporters rarely.

Reporters are on the disempowered receiving end of a highly vertical chain of command. They get paid to focus on their own stories, not on the quality and integrity of the organization they serve.

That’s why, faced with stories that make their fillings ache, newsroom veterans write furtive messages to their own bosses that they are scared to sign.

And that may help explain why, in an unintentionally disturbing comment, Kelley could write in his farewell message: “I walk away from USA Today knowing that in 21 years I have never had a correction or retraction printed.”

Share this on:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply