Continuation of <i>Who Knows Jack?</i>  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Continuation of Who Knows Jack?   

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


'I routinely would pick up the paper and read a Jack Kelley story, and I'd scratch my head and say, 'How did he get that access?' " says reporter Tony Mauro. "And I don't mean that in a questioning way."

But plenty of people do. Questions have simmered around Jack Kelley's reporting for more than a decade. When he got quotes from infamously tight-lipped people, his colleagues doubted them. When he wrote of jaw-dropping scenarios he'd witnessed firsthand, they'd roll their eyes. As one USA Today staffer says, "Pretty much anything Jack came up with, [people] would say, 'Oh yeah? Bullshit.' "

After Kelley's controversial 2001 Special Forces piece, Linda Mathews, USA Today's front-page "cover story" editor, heard the questions herself. "A Gannett reporter called me up and he said, 'Linda, have you ever talked to Special Forces people? I just don't believe Jack was able to interview Special Forces.... It's inconceivable to me that this could happen.' I said I would pass it on to other people, and I did. But within a week or so it was clear Jack was right. Confirmation came from other sources," says Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and foreign editor for ABC News. "Does that mean he had personal contact with them? I don't know. It's still an open question in my mind."

Months after the Special Forces story, when Kelley was still reporting from Pakistan, staffers back home he was collaborating with on a piece about the hunt for bin Laden lost confidence in the information he was providing. Reporters told their editor they couldn't trust the anonymous quotes Kelley had sent, so they asked Kelley to name his four sources. They could only confirm that one of four people existed so, a reporter says, the story ran with just one of Kelley's quotes.

Were the other three people real? Hard to know. That's the way it is when it comes to most complaints about Kelley's reporting. Vague suspicions rather than gotcha, experienced people asking what are the chances that this or that could have happened, especially after that last crazy thing and the one we all couldn't believe the time before that. What are the chances all this happens to one guy? Small, surely. But small isn't nonexistent.

"He always seemed to be in the center of attention, which is theoretically possible but hard to imagine on virtually every big international story," one reporter says. "It's hard to have confidence when so many things happen." Another adds: "You get lucky like that, but not all the time."

Reporters point to how Kelley is always alone when he gets his most dramatic material. A former USA Today reporter says, "When he was in Washington, he seemed incapable of doing routine journalism. Then he'd go abroad, and it was like Clark Kent emerging from the phone booth."

The Kelley stories most notorious among skeptics showcase not only the shocking access Kelley achieved to report them, but the high drama that ensued once he was on the scene.

Matthew Fisher recalls being at the Rogner Hotel in Albania with two tables of journalists just after a Kelley story ran in April 1999 detailing how he trekked for two-and-a-half days through the snowy mountains of Yugoslavia with a group of Kosovo Liberation Army fighters. (See "Suicide Mission," June 1999.) "They were going absolutely berserk," Fisher remembers. "They were shouting, 'How was this possible?' " That Kelley had been allowed along for the mission was stunning enough, but then Kelley's KLA group actually ambushes a convoy of Serbs: Bullets whistle by people's heads, Serbs chase them, mortars and grenades land all around them. Kelley hears bones break, sees shrapnel cut into someone.

Then, in March 2000 Kelley travels to Cuba as the country and the United States brawl over rights to the 6-year-old Elián González, who floated into Florida waters on an inner tube. Kelley apparently gets invited to watch on the beach in predawn as a group of Cubans tries to escape their homeland on a small aluminum boat. The boat sinks in a storm, and Kelley is on the beach days later when the Cuban Coast Guard hauls in the survivors, who vividly tell Kelley how their boat mates perished.

In August 2001 Kelley is walking by a Sbarro pizza shop in Jerusalem at lunchtime with an Israeli official just as a suicide bomber blows it up. Kelley's first-person account tells how he saw the bomber fight his way into the restaurant through the crowds, then of the burst of heat that accompanied the detonation, and how when three men "catapulted" out of the restaurant, their heads "separated from their bodies and roll[ed] down the street."

A month after the Sbarro bomb, just before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kelley is allowed along as Jewish West Bank settlers, with their wives and children, set out to kill "blood-sucking Arab" taxi passengers. Complaints from a settlers' group that it never happened vanished in the shadow of 9/11.

"He gave them the 'wow' type of copy that everyone wanted," a reporter says of Kelley. "Someone should have questioned why he came up with 'wow' copy all the time.... When something doesn't seem right, it almost never is."

As suspicions about Kelley's work festered at USA Today and elsewhere, his star only rose. He spoke at events on behalf of the paper. The powers that be were telling reporters to be more like Jack, such a go-getter. Some colleagues tended to be either jealous of the attention and plum assignments he got, or bitter that the goal they were supposed to aspire to was being set by a guy whose achievements they didn't even believe.

"I always thought his reporting was sort of a joke," says Don Kirk, a former USA Today foreign correspondent who since has written several books and reported for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Even Kelley's casual chitchat seemed farfetched, says Kirk, remembering how Kelley told him in Kuwait in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War that he'd helped carry bodies of Kuwaitis or Iraqis killed in the fighting. "It seemed unlikely to me. You couldn't exactly disprove it, but you just sit there and say, 'Wow.' "

Kirk never contested Kelley's claims. He didn't take Kelley seriously, he says, adding in an e-mail, "Had anyone suggested I 'emulate' Jack...I would have viewed the request as hysterical--that is if I weren't overcome by rage."

At the Maryland restaurant Kelley mentions his "enemies." He doesn't want to get too much into it--he'd rather other people explain the situation. But the enemies are the harping doubters, the newsroom nonbelievers who wouldn't shut up through the years about problems in his copy. An enemy must have sent the anonymous note to Executive Editor Brian Gallagher last May, comparing Kelley to notorious New York Times fabricator and liar Jayson Blair, Kelley says. And when Gallagher and his fellow top editors decided to follow through on the note and look into Kelley's work, it was apparently the enemies who saw to it that the investigation wasn't fair.

Kelley admits, however, that his decision to lie during the investigation was no one's fault but his. He's his own worst enemy there.

Like many news executives haunted by Jayson Blair, last May Gallagher sent a mass e-mail to his staff asking anyone who doubted the accuracy of anything in the paper to come forward. Coincidentally, just before he sent it, an anonymous letter arrived through USA Today's internal mail system raising doubts about Kelley. According to reports and a description by Kelley, the letter-writer called Kelley a highly paid "golden boy" and pointed to his "obviously fake" quotes, in particular ones in a March 2003 story from Pakistan in which a Pakistani intelligence official who thought Osama bin Laden was being cornered says, "Jesus, this could be it, this could really be it."

Gallagher shared the note with USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen and Managing Editor for News Hal Ritter. After discussing it, the three decided to see, "very quietly," if other concerns existed, Gallagher says, adding, "We found a few." So they decided to review a body of Kelley's work. From that they culled a few stories to look at more closely. "Our assumption from that was not that Jack was guilty--just the opposite," Gallagher says.

Kelley says Gallagher told him of the note, saying, "I have something to show you that's going to make you angry." (Kelley also remembers Gallagher telling him at the time, "I believe this is all a case of envy." Gallagher says he didn't say that, but "I certainly told him I didn't regard the note as proof of anything.") Kelley eagerly endorsed the editors' plan to verify his stories to remove the doubts. He wanted to start that very night.

According to a USA Today statement, during the ensuing investigation, a reporter told editors that after Kelley wrote a story in July 1999 out of Belgrade about a document linking Serbs to war crimes, an official from the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague questioned "the existence of a notebook at the heart of the story." The reporter said nothing of the complaint at the time.

Kelley replayed to editors how he got that story, in which he says he "examined" a notebook that included a direct order from the Yugoslav army to "cleanse" a Kosovo village. But Kelley and the main investigator, reporter Mark Memmott, ran into trouble verifying Kelley's account. Kelley's main source, Natasa Kandic, the human rights investigator who purportedly showed him the notebook, told Memmott she didn't remember an interview with Kelley and that she never had such a notebook. And the translator Kelley said witnessed the Kandic interview was unreachable. Kelley then told Memmott that two translators actually attended the interview, not just one.

Memmott reached the second translator. She remembered an interview with Kelley and Kandic but said Kelley wasn't shown any documents. She also said she was the only translator there. According to USA Today's statement, eight days later, on September 27, Kelley called Memmott to say he had reached the original translator and that she'd be calling him.

The woman called in October to vouch for Kelley's story. Kelley showed the investigators a photo of her in November. But the paper, which had taped the woman's calls and hired a voice expert, matched her phone number and voice to that of a Russian translator Kelley had used before.

In December Kelley admitted his deception to USA Today's publisher.

Terence Sheridan, a former reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, has written extensively about the Balkans for his former paper, the International Herald Tribune and Pacific News Service. Sheridan says he encountered plenty of journalists there who, due to inexperience in the country or unreliable fixers, misrepresented the complex conflict. But Kelley, he writes in an e-mail, didn't have that excuse.

"He wasn't a rookie or a blockhead. He was a well-traveled, experienced star working for a rich and powerful organization," Sheridan says. "In the end, his Belgrade piece was a calculated but laughable lie, the scoop that came apart like a breakaway suit when barely touched."

Another journalist, who has closely followed the war crimes tribunal against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, says if a document such as Kelley described in his story existed, those prosecuting Milosevic surely would have brought it up.

"Kelley basically described a direct order from the Yugoslav army high command to attack civilians, that is, to commit a crime," the journalist writes in an e-mail. "But as far as I know, no order of this magnitude has ever emerged in any of the war crimes trials in The Hague, which is one reason the prosecution is having such a tough time convicting Milosevic of genocide. If such a 'smoking-gun' document actually existed and was in the hands of the UN prosecutor, we would know about it."

Kelley stands resolutely behind the Belgrade story, as he does everything he's ever written. When he lied about the translator, he says it was an act incongruent with everything he is. Because the investigation "was not being conducted in good faith," he says, he panicked.

"I've replayed this in my mind sooooo many times," Kelley says. "I thought, you know, you've been shot at overseas, you didn't panic there. Because there I knew I had a job to do, and I was confident in my ability. In this investigation I was not confident that it was conducted in good faith and I panicked.... I didn't trust the system. They didn't give me reason to trust them. They refused to interview editors who edited the stories, reporters who were with me in the field, researchers who worked with me on the stories from back here."

Kelley says the desperation overtook him the day before he told his editors about the phony second translator, the day "Brian Gallagher told me I had better come up with the interpreter or else."

Gallagher says, "Any suggestion that there was a threat along those lines is not accurate." Kelley's deception was already in play by then, he adds. As far as not contacting people Kelley suggested, Gallagher says though they went to great lengths to keep the months-long review quiet to avoid damaging Kelley's reputation, they interviewed the people who needed to be interviewed. "It was very important to us that this investigation be kept secret so someone who was innocent would not be tarred," Gallagher says. "We succeeded in that, but it constrained the investigation."

As Kelley sits in the restaurant talking about the investigation and about his lie, he's at times quick to blame himself, appearing ashamed and quietly frustrated at not being able to pinpoint exactly what made him step so far outside his character. Like a tape looping back on itself time and again, he repeats things like, "I knew it was wrong. It was against everything that I believed in but I panicked.... For the rest of my life I'm going to regret it.... I understand I caused them to question 21 years, I do."

And then he calls what he did a "mistake," suggesting that those in the USA Today newsroom who've always been against him primed the climate that led to this situation, saying, "It's open season on me."

"When they say I engaged in an elaborate deception, they're giving me way too much credit," Kelley says at one point. "They imply that I set up this entire thing with the interpreter. All I did was make one phone call. She's known me very, very well and she told me flat out, 'I know you and I worked with you and I know you've never fabricated a story.' She said, 'Let me pose as the interpreter because you're never going to find her.' "

Ultimately Kelley concedes that whether the investigation was fair or not doesn't matter, only his lie. After that, he says, he didn't deserve to work at the paper anymore. But before he resigned, he only wanted to know one thing: Would USA Today correct or retract any of his stories? It didn't.

"I...leave knowing I stand behind every story," he says. "And that I never fabricated or plagiarized."

In 1992 Marc Fisher, now a Washington Post metro columnist, was the Post's Berlin bureau chief. Not long after he'd written a 3,500-word feature about the plight of Gypsies in the country, he was reading USA Today's international edition, which he'd picked up for the baseball box scores.

Fisher, an AJR contributor, wasn't surprised to see that Jack Kelley, who he knew had been in the country, had also written something about the Gypsies, a big issue in Germany at the time. "But what was unusual," Fisher says, "was the number of elements that were virtually identical to mine. It struck me as particularly strange because there were quotes I'd gotten in one-on-one conversations with people I'd gone to great lengths to find. They're word for word in Kelley's piece to mine."

Especially odd, Fisher thought, Kelley had quotes from a man named Alfred Erdolli, someone without a phone who was not only difficult to locate but who, Fisher believes, didn't speak English because he interviewed him in German for just that reason. "It's incredible enough to find the guy," Fisher says, "and then to get precisely the same words, the same sentences in the same order."

Fisher told his editor, Michael Getler, about it, he recalls, and Getler then wrote a letter to the editor of USA Today. Getler, now the Post's ombudsman, doesn't remember sending a letter to USA Today but says it could have happened. USA Today's editor at the time, Peter Prichard, doesn't recall ever getting any complaints about Kelley's reporting. Though Prichard doesn't recall it, Fisher remembers him writing back a note to Getler defending Kelley. And Kelley remembers hearing about Fisher's complaint at the time.

Kelley's short Gypsy story includes significant portions in which phrases or entire sentences are identical to Fisher's story. For example, Kelley wrote: "Gypsies, a dark-skinned people who arrived in Central Europe from northern India in the 10th century, are arguably the most hated people in Germany, if not all of Europe." Fisher wrote: "Gypsies are dark-skinned people.... They are descendents of a northern Indian tribe that wandered to Europe in the 10th century.... That the Gypsies are Europe's most despised ethnic group is unquestionable."

Kelley called Germany "homogenous." Fisher called Germany "homogenous." Kelley wrote: "Gypsies recently canceled their annual memorial services at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after organizers received threatening phone calls." Fisher wrote that exact sentence except for the word "recently." Kelley wrote: "More than 500,000 Gypsies were killed in the Holocaust. Nazis chose them as a first target, characterizing them as 'Oriental-West Asian bastard mixtures.' " Fisher wrote: "The Nazis chose them as one of their first targets, officially characterizing them as 'Oriental-West Asian bastard mixtures.' More than 500,000 Gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust."

And then there are the Erdolli quotes. Kelley quoted him as saying, " 'We're Germany's scapegoats again. And no one helps us. This is the hardest fight we've ever had.' " In Fisher's piece Erdolli says, " 'We're Germany's scapegoats again.... And no one helps us.... This is the hardest fight we've ever had.' "

Kelley was reporting in Moscow when his Gypsies piece ran and he heard about Fisher's charge. He had the Post story faxed to him, he says, and then called Fisher to explain his reporting. "At the end of our call," Kelley writes in an e-mail, "[H]e said he believed that I had not seen a copy of his story before I wrote mine or plagiarized his story in any way."

Continuing, Kelley writes: "Several months later, I heard he was at a dinner party in Washington and repeated the same concern. I then...met with him for nearly 30 minutes. At the end of our conversation, he said, 'I believe you. I believe you didn't plagiarize me.' As I told Marc, I never saw a copy of his story and my 'fixer' in Berlin could verify all the interviews I had done there on the topic. I also told him that plagiarism is against everything I believe."

Fisher insists he never told Kelley he believed him. "That's patently false," he says. Fisher does, however, remember a middle-of-the-night call from Kelley in Moscow and then meeting with him in Washington. "He said I'd done terrible harm by in any way questioning his truthfulness," Fisher says of the call. "He defended the piece and said he'd done the interviews. He said he may have read my piece but did not remember. I told him what I thought of the piece and that was the end of that."

After news broke of Kelley's resignation from USA Today, the Washington Post reported another possible plagiarism incident involving a story Post reporter Kevin Sullivan wrote in July 1998 about a village in Pakistan known for its gun market, Darra Adam Khel.

As with the Gypsies story, the Post's piece was lengthy, and Kelley's much shorter piece, written in September, includes significant similar portions.

For instance, Kelley wrote: "The small family-owned shops that line the road through the village are filled with Russian Kalashnikovs, American M-16s, Italian Berettas, Israeli Uzis, cannons, grenades, guns hidden in walking sticks.... A few U.S.-made Stinger missiles, sent to help the Afghan Mujaheddin fight the Soviets...also are available." Sullivan wrote: "The main street--the only street--is lined with tiny shops and stalls filled with every kind of firearm: Russian Kalashnikovs, American M-16s, Italian Berettas, Israeli Uzis, even guns hidden in walking sticks.... Darra's merchants also sell cannons, antiaircraft guns and grenades. A few U.S.-made Stinger missiles, sent to help the mujaheddin fight the Soviets, are said to be still available...."

Kelley wrote: "An AK-47, captured from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, sells for $320. But a near-identical Darra copy starts at $50." Sullivan wrote: "an AK-47 captured from the Soviet army in Afghanistan goes for about $320, but almost identical copies made in Darra start at about $50." Kelley wrote: "Pakistan's national and provincial governments are exploring ways to regulate the gun trade in Darra." Sullivan wrote that exactly except for the word "Pakistan."

Also, in describing when people test-fire the wares in the street, Sullivan wrote, "not even the dozing dogs flinch." In describing the same apathy to the constant gunfire, Kelley wrote: "The dogs didn't even flinch."

Kelley says he didn't see a copy of the Post's story before he wrote his. He stopped in Darra spontaneously as he worked his way through the region, he says, at the suggestion of a BBC cameraman. He says the place is so small, it's not strange that two reporters there would describe the same things. Many of the details in his story, such as the type of guns for sale at the market, came from the Pakistani government, Kelley says, adding that when he listed the types of guns, he just went by size.

"When a foreign reporter shows up to cover a story like that, you all tend to use the same fixers, and because there are so few people who speak English, you all tend to interview the exact same people," Kelley explains. "And when you look at this town, there is nothing but men firing guns in the middle of the road, donkeys and dogs sleeping that don't wake up....

"You go up there...and if somebody shoots a gun and the dogs continue sleeping, they don't flinch, for lack of a better way to say it. They don't flinch. That doesn't mean you've plagiarized, you're seeing the exact same things some of the other reporters did....

"I know in my heart I didn't plagiarize a Washington Post story. I would never do anything like that. It goes against everything I believe in."


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