Accuracy in Media

In a controversy reminiscent of last year’s Jayson Blair affair, one of USA Today‘s star reporters resigned this month after he confessed to having invented a witness to help corroborate a 1999 article. Jack Kelley, a well-traveled foreign correspondent who had worked for the Gannett newspaper since its founding in 1982, resigned January 6 after he admitted deceiving USA Today in its investigation of his work.

Ironically, the paper’s review of Kelley’s reporting began in the wake of the Blair scandal at the New York Times. Blair resigned last year after admitting that he had fabricated and plagiarized much of his work.

Last May, after the Blair controversy had intensified public mistrust of the media, USA Today Executive Editor Brian Gallagher e-mailed staffers at his paper, inviting anyone suspecting inaccuracy in USA Today stories to contact him.

That month Gallagher received an anonymous note alleging fabrication in some of Kelley’s articles, according to a statement released January 13. The note, apparently from one of Kelley’s colleagues, led to a review of his work, which was conducted by fellow reporter Mark Memmott.

Memmott was asked to investigate several stories Kelley had written between 1995 and 2001, the USA Today statement said. In particular, a front-page story from Yugoslavia published July 14, 1999, was given careful scrutiny.

In the article, Kelley reported that he had examined a Yugoslavian army notebook containing “a direct order to a lieutenant to ‘cleanse’ the village of Cusk” in Kosovo. Kelley wrote that “U.N. war crimes investigators” had described the notebook as “the strongest and most direct evidence linking the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo.”

Soon after Kelley’s story was published, however, “an official from the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague had raised doubts about the existence of a notebook at the heart of the story,” according to USA Today‘s statement. The complaint was later passed on to editors, leading them to give the Kosovo article special attention.

When questioned by Gallagher about the story, Kelley said that he, accompanied by a translator, had been shown the notebook in an interview with two human rights investigators. Kelley said he would try to prove the veracity of his account by contacting those present at the interview.

Kelley’s attempts to do so were unfruitful, however. Meanwhile, Memmott succeeded in contacting the principal human rights investigator mentioned in the story. She told him that she had never possessed a notebook matching the one described in Kelley’s story.

Under pressure to corroborate his report, Kelley resorted, as he later admitted, to asking a Russian woman (with whom he had worked previously) to call Memmott and impersonate the translator who had been present at the interview. Memmott suspected that something was wrong when the woman used phrases remarkably similar to Kelley’s. Later investigation proved that the woman was collaborating with Kelley.

In December, after being confronted with evidence of the hoax, Kelley admitted that he had tried to deceive his colleagues.

Faced with this confession, USA Today decided that Kelley’s employment at the paper would have to end. “By engaging in a deception,” the paper said, “he violated the first responsibility of any journalist: to tell the truth.”

Kelley resigned January 6. He later told the Washington Post that he had “panicked and used poor judgment” in his effort to find the translator. He defended his reporting and charged that USA Today‘s investigation of his work had been provoked by colleagues jealous of his success.

In a statement posted January 13, Kelley says that the investigation “was not conducted in good faith.” Other USA Today staffers have defended Kelley and criticized the newspaper’s handling of the inquiry, according to the Post.

But USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen said she was confident that “Jack was treated fairly and professionally throughout the investigation.” Jurgensen said that Kelley approved the choice of investigators and cooperated with the inquiry until November.

Although Kelley admits that he deceived his editors during the investigation, he stands by his reporting: “Every story published under my byline was accurate based on what I saw, the interviews conducted and the details available at the time. Any discrepancies that may have been found during the inquiry of the Yugoslav story are not material as the facts of that story have been confirmed.”

USA Today says it has verified that a massacre took place in the village Kelley mentioned and that the Serbian military likely took part in the act. The existence of the notebook, however, has not been established.

Other Kelley articles have been questioned as well. In a front-page story published September 4, 2001, Kelley reported that thirteen Jewish settlers had opened fire on a Palestinian taxi in the West Bank. Kelley quoted the leader of the group proclaiming “our Jewish duty” to “eliminate all the Muslim filth.”

“Sources familiar with the inquiry say an Israeli official has confirmed the incident to USA Today,” reported the Washington Post. But according to a later article in USA Today, “Memmott said he could not find anyone with first-hand knowledge of the attack.”

A source has told Accuracy in Media that Israel has not been able to confirm the alleged incident. Moreover, David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron who was quoted in Kelley’s article, wrote a letter to USA Today calling the piece “an intentional attempt to besmirch the good name of the Jewish Community of Hebron, using fabrication, distortion and inaccuracy.”

In recent days, allegations of plagiarism have been added to the case against Kelley. USA Today reported January 14 that the newspaper has found conspicuous similarities between a September 2, 1998, story by Kelley and a Washington Post article by Kevin Sullivan published on July 9 of that year.

Both stories were reported from Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan, and dealt with the small-arms trade on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A comparison of the two articles revealed remarkable similarities in phrasing. One sentence from the Post article read: “A few U.S.-made Stinger missiles, sent to help the mujaheddin fight the Soviets, are said to be still available here to the discreet buyer.”

The corresponding sentence in Kelley’s article: “A few U.S.-made Stinger missiles, sent to help the Afghan Mujaheddin fight the Soviets in 1979-1989, reportedly also are available.”

In another revelation, the Baltimore Sun reports that Kelley was accused in 1997 of falsely attributing a quote to the president of the Red Cross in an article written that year. Two weeks after the story was published, the Sun reports, a Red Cross spokesman wrote a letter to USA Today taking issue with Kelley’s article.

On January 16, USA Today‘s editor and publisher announced the launch of “an independent review of Jack Kelley’s tenure” at the newspaper, including “an examination of all stories he wrote.” The newspaper plans to “vet Kelley’s record completely and report the results publicly.” The members of the review committee “will be named soon,” the statement said.

Kelley, like Blair, seems to have developed a long history of questionable journalistic practices; and USA Today, like the New York Times, has shown a disconcerting tendency to look the other way when faced with evidence of such behavior. One hopes that the independent review will finally provide readers with the whole truth about Kelley’s reporting.

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