USA Today writer resigns amid investigation

Jack Kelley quits after questions about his articles

January 09, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Jack Kelley, one of USA Today's most prominent correspondents, has resigned from the newspaper in the wake of an internal inquiry into allegations that some of his reporting had been fabricated.

None of his articles has been publicly retracted. And the newspaper says that Kelley's resignation earlier this week has settled the matter.

"Based on what we know now, we're done with the investigation," said editor Karen Jurgensen. Asked if she were confident that Kelley's reporting was accurate, she replied, "We're not in a position of correcting anything at this time."

Kelley did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment left at his home and through an associate of his wife, Jacki Kelley, a senior vice president for advertising at the Gannett Co. newspaper. The resignation was first reported yesterday by The Washington Post, to whom Kelley denied that he falsified any reporting. He pointed to the absence of any corrections as a vindication of his professional integrity but said he nonetheless decided to quit.

Kelley, 43, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has worked for more than two decades with USA Today, traveling widely and covering many of the world's most dangerous spots. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, he has chronicled much of the American response in such places as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. He is the sole reporter ever to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist for work done at USA Today.

Former USA Today Editor David Mazzarella said Kelley was an appealing figure who could often elicit surprising nuggets of information and candid quotations for impressive scoops. His stories often involved unidentified sources about sensitive military and intelligence matters, said Mazzarella, who stepped down in 1999. "I always questioned him very carefully, and quite hard - as hard or harder than other reporters - but I never was aware of anything that was falsified or `improved,'" Mazzarella said. "He had a personality that does seem to make people open up to him."

The internal inquiry was prompted by pointed questions that were said to be raised last June in an anonymous complaint about some of Kelley's stories filed from abroad. The Post reported that several of his articles withstood scrutiny, although one, from Cuba, could not be verified. However, several of Kelley's former colleagues, speaking on condition they not be named, said editors at USA Today were well aware before last year that some journalists were skeptical about the veracity of some of his reporting.

As an example, two former colleagues separately described an incident in February 2002, when Kelley provided quotations from unnamed sources for an article on whether Osama bin Laden had evaded capture from U.S. troops. According to these journalists, then-USA Today reporter Jonathan Weisman and editor Owen Ullmann pressed Kelley for more information but could not verify the existence of all his sources. (Weisman, who now works at The Post, and Ullmann, now deputy managing editor for USA Today's editorial page, declined to comment.)

USA Today spokesman Steven Anderson said that he would not address when the newspaper became aware of any allegations of wrongdoing by Kelley, calling it a "personnel issue."

"Our policy is to correct these things that can be corrected or when corrections are warranted," Anderson said.

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