Editors missed danger signals

At USA Today, signs pointed to problems

Media

March 24, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

When USA Today editors began last year to investigate an anonymous complaint about an article written by the paper's star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley, they did not expect any problems of substance to surface.

Since Kelley's forced resignation in January, however, it has become clear that during the last 12 years, a number of questions were raised about his professionalism that could have triggered their concern.

An in-depth inquiry commissioned by USA Today Publisher Craig Moon concluded last week that Kelley fabricated numerous articles, plagiarized dozens of others and developed elaborate schemes to cover his tracks when confronted last fall. Kelley, who has denied either plagiarizing or fabricating parts of stories, was forced out when editors realized that he had deceived them while attempting to defend his work.

Kelley's articles from 1993 through 2003 were reviewed by a panel of distinguished journalists led by USA Today founding editorial director John Seigenthaler and aided by a team of reporters. The period overlaps the terms of three top USA Today editors: Peter S. Prichard, Dave Mazzarella and current editor Karen Jurgensen.

But a string of troubling incidents could have set off alarms well before last spring's complaint:

In 1992, The Washington Post protested that sections of an article by reporter Marc Fisher about refugees in Germany had been lifted by Kelley without attribution. Although dismissive at the time, USA Today recently has acknowledged concerns about the unattributed passages.

In 1997, as The Sun previously reported, Kelley misrepresented remarks made informally by a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross by attributing them to the organization's president. In the article about the Red Cross' record during the Holocaust, the comments were described as having been made during a heated exchange between the group's president and Kelley.

Though he defended his account at the time as accurate, Kelley acknowledged in January making what he termed a "minor mistake."

In February 2002, a fellow reporter and an editor removed quotations from an article about U.S.-led efforts to capture Osama bin Laden because they could not verify the existence of all of Kelley's sources.

A fourth incident, in particular, also could have served as warning sign.

On Aug. 26, 1999, Kelley wrote a front-page article on Russian money-laundering that appeared to be a scoop for the newspaper. It stated that unnamed U.S., British and Russian law enforcement officials said, "Russian organized crime figures laundered at least $15 billion through two New York banks at the direction of President Boris Yeltsin's government." The article continued: "The officials said in interviews that the money includes at least $10 billion in International Monetary Fund loans."

The latter amount represented more than half the approximately $17.5 billion loaned to Russia by the IMF from 1995 through 1999, according to IMF records that are available on its Web site.

But no other media outlet could confirm those figures, and U.S. government officials told other Washington-based USA Today reporters that the story seriously inflated the scope of the operation. Guilty pleas won later by federal prosecutors involved far smaller amounts of money. To this day, the IMF maintains that there is no evidence that any loans were wrongly diverted. Though the paper didn't print a correction of the story, its future articles largely retreated from the claims of Kelley's initial reporting.

In addition, days after the article ran, USA Today dispatched then-foreign editor Douglas Stanglin to London and Justice Department reporter Kevin Johnson to Germany to conduct additional reporting. A senior investigative reporter, Ed Pound, also was assigned to oversee subsequent articles on the topic.

It was an unusually intense effort to ensure a story's accuracy. Stanglin shared credit for an article from London with Kelley - the editor's only byline from abroad for the newspaper, according to a database search. In an e-mailed interview, Stanglin, a former Moscow correspondent, said, "Does it really make any sense that we would have sent [Kelley] in the first place if we didn't trust his work?"

Members of the investigating committee were told by Kelley and Stanglin that Kelley had requested help reporting on such a complex topic, Seigenthaler said. But Seigenthaler said Stanglin was also in London with Kelley to conduct an informal "inquiry."

"There is no doubt, in my mind," Seigenthaler said yesterday in a telephone interview, that Stanglin went to London "either to confirm the accuracy of what [Kelley] had, or to check on the validity of what he had heard." Once there, Stanglin spoke by telephone, in Russian, to a person presented to him as one of Kelley's Russian sources, Seigenthaler said. Stanglin told the committee that he was convinced Kelley's reporting held up, Seigenthaler said.

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