USA Today's culture aided reporter's deception, panel finds

2 more top editors resign after plagiarism scandal

April 23, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

A panel of former newspaper editors investigating the newsroom practices of USA Today reported yesterday that a deeply ingrained culture of fear as well as negligent editing and poor communication led the newspaper to ignore signs that its star foreign correspondent fabricated and plagiarized stories for more than a decade.

Executive editor Brian Gallagher, the No. 2 editor, said in an e-mail interview yesterday that he would leave his job after aiding the transition to a new editor. By late afternoon, after meeting with publisher Craig Moon, Hal Ritter, the managing editor who oversaw Jack Kelley, also had resigned.

Earlier this week, the newsroom's top executive, editor Karen Jurgensen, retired immediately after reading the highly critical report, which was written by a panel led by USA Today founding editorial director John Seigenthaler.

The Kelley debacle marks the second time in a year that one of the nation's leading newspapers has found itself in such a crisis of credibility that top editors have lost their jobs. Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the former executive editor and managing editor at The New York Times, were forced to resign last June after a similar scandal involving the fabrications and plagiarism of former reporter Jayson Blair.

USA Today, which has the nation's largest daily circulation, dedicated a full newspaper page yesterday to the report's findings and a description of Kelley's wrongdoings. The three-member panel that conducted the review concluded that editors championed Kelley despite the objections of peers who repeatedly raised questions about the integrity of his reporting.

In a meeting yesterday with editors, Gallagher stressed his belief that there is only "one villain" in the debacle -- Kelley himself. Through his attorney, Kelley, who had initially denied any wrongdoing, apologized yesterday for the first time. "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," he said in a written statement.

Last winter, Moon commissioned the Seigenthaler committee to investigate Kelley's work -- and the newsroom culture in which he had thrived. Its report pointedly criticized leadership of the news division under Ritter, describing a workplace infected by a "virus of fear" in which concerns about Kelley were repressed and performance reviews were apparently used punitively.

The team of USA Today journalists who worked with the Seigenthaler committee reported yesterday that Kelley's transgressions, including repeated fabrications and plagiarism, dated to at least 1991, when he began reporting frequently from abroad. In its final review of 1,400 articles by Kelley, the team found a total of 20 stories containing fabricated passages.

Kelley sometimes wrote about places he had never visited, the reporters found. He plagiarized frequently, "often wrapping his own contrived accounts around the legitimate work of journalists from rival publications," the newspaper stated. He also falsified expense accounts, billing the company for thousands of dollars to pay supposed translators and helpers who never received money.

Kelley, 43, was forced to resign in January after he was confronted by editors who discovered that he had lied during an internal inquiry into an anonymous complaint that was lodged last spring.

"There were more than enough serious cumulative concerns, challenges and doubts expressed about Kelley's work to have triggered an intensive internal investigation of him years before the anonymous letter arrived," wrote Seigenthaler, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Bill Kovach, and former Portland Oregonian editor William Hilliard.

"Policies, rules and guidelines in place at the newspaper, and beyond that, routine editing procedures should have raised dark shadows of doubt about Kelley's work, had his editors been vigilant and diligent. They were not."

As one of many examples, the report included the recollection of an editor who was editing one of Kelley's articles: "I remember thinking at the time that it was a great story if true." Yet no action was taken to confirm it.

Yesterday, Moon promised additional changes in the highly corporate environment of USA Today. "When you have a very top-down organization, and you're not allowing the free flow of ideas to bubble up, you have the potential that when something like Jack Kelley arises, people below are not willing to come forward because it's not part of the culture," Moon said in an interview. He said he would soon pick an editor -- likely from within USA Today or Gannett.

The report faults all senior editors at the newspaper dating to the early 1990s. "Those of us who perhaps could have done something differently failed to do it," said David Mazzarella, who was editor from 1994 to 1999. "But we didn't know what we didn't know."

He added, "I thought we had reached a level of professionalism and pride there. This sort of sets everything back."

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