USA Today documents reporter's fabrications

Jack Kelley's actions `a shameful betrayal'

March 20, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

USA Today reported yesterday that its former star correspondent Jack Kelley fabricated major elements of stories filed from abroad, plagiarized passages in other instances and then concocted elaborate ruses to conceal his transgressions.

The newspaper documented the extent of Kelley's deceptions in a front-page article yesterday and additional coverage that consumed two full pages. "It is indeed a sad and shameful betrayal of public trust," said USA Today founding editorial director John Seigenthaler, who is heading a three-person committee charged with reviewing Kelley's 21-year tenure at the paper.

Seigenthaler and his two colleagues, Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and William Hilliard, former editor of the Portland Oregonian, led an emotionally charged two-hour staff meeting yesterday afternoon to explain their findings.

They told the newspaper's staff that yesterday's report is the result of the first stage of their investigation, according to USA Today journalists. They are nearing completion of a thorough study of the newsroom culture that allowed Kelley to commit such egregious professional sins, they said. The newspaper's top news executives - Editor Karen Jurgensen and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher - did not speak.

The revelations, which USA Today said Kelley disputes, represent a breach of professional trust and follow a string of journalistic scandals that have undermined credibility of the mainstream press.

"The fallout's going to be serious," said former Detroit News Editor Robert Giles, now curator of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism. But he praised USA Today, a corporate sibling to the News, for the openness of its response to allegations raised last year about the veracity of Kelley's reporting.

Kelley resigned in January after he was found to have deceived editors who were attempting to verify a 1999 article about war crimes in the Balkans. A team of reporters working with Seigenthaler's review committee systematically examined more than 150 articles Kelley wrote between 1993 and 2003.

Fabrications

They found that some of his stories, so compellingly told that they were nominated for journalism's top professional honor, the Pulitzer Prize, had been based on invented incidents. On one occasion, in June 2002, Kelley wrote a front-page article which included vivid first-hand accounts of suspected terrorists' training in a remote region of Pakistan - though he was staying in a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, according to the room service receipts he submitted to the newspaper.

USA Today also reported that it uncovered copies of scripts crafted and sent by Kelley to several of his alleged sources encouraging them to support his fraudulent stories. Through a lawyer, Kelley declined yesterday to comment. But in interviews with the Seigenthaler panel, he denied any plagiarism or fabrication.

The 43-year-old reporter, who joined USA Today after graduating in 1982 from the University of Maryland's journalism school, was highly regarded at the newspaper. For years, Kelley wrote from hot spots across the globe for the newspaper, which boasts a daily circulation of 2.2 million - the highest in the country.

Kelley was seen as part of USA Today's growing efforts to win respect for the thoroughness of its journalism. He was named staff member of the year in 2001 and became USA Today's sole Pulitzer finalist for reporting in 2002.

"There's a feeling of tremendous disappointment, for one, and bafflement, really, over how it could have happened," said Dave Mazzarella, the newspaper's top editor from 1994 to 1999.

Seigenthaler, Kovach and Hilliard interviewed more than 60 USA Today reporters, editors and executives for their review and spent roughly 27 hours in face-to-face exchanges with Kelley over the past seven weeks.

"He is the most convincing person I have ever talked to," said Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Sitting down with him the first 10, 15, 17 hours, it was very difficult - if not impossible - not to believe every word that came out of his mouth."

For the review, reporters traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad to investigate whether Kelley's accounts held up under scrutiny. Although some proved true, many did not.

For example, Kelley lied about the circumstances surrounding a snapshot of a Cuban woman that accompanied a March 2000 story in which he described her disastrous attempt to escape her country. In it, Kelley reported that he watched the woman's boat leave shore and that she and five other refugees drowned during a terrible storm.

The USA Today reporter who investigated the story found the woman, who legally immigrated from Cuba a year ago and now lives in the southeastern United States, according to the newspaper. It termed Kelley's story "a lie from start to finish."

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