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American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2004

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Yet another journalism scandal erupts.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


I'd driven by the striking new headquarters of USA Today in Washington's Virginia suburbs countless times before one day I actually got to peek inside that glittery glass box. Tom Curley, at the time the paper's publisher (he subsequently took over the Associated Press), had been out to chat with several of our journalism classes at the University of Maryland, and in turn he invited us to take a tour.

So it was that I found myself traipsing through the paper's modern newsroom one morning with several dozen graduate students and faculty. The odds were long that we would run into the paper's star correspondent, Jack Kelley, as on any given day you were more likely to find him in Jerusalem or Sarajevo or Havana than Tysons Corner. But we kept an eye out, just in case.

Kelley's startling dispatches from remote locales had made him the best-known news reporter at USA Today and had fueled the growing reputation for substantive journalism at a place once derided as "McPaper." (See "The Next Generation") The newspaper establishment conveyed its own imprimatur in 2002 when Kelley was named a Pulitzer finalist for beat reporting.

More to the point for us, Kelley was a Maryland journalism graduate and someone who, in the few times I had met him, had demonstrated great affection for his alma mater. So it was a pleasant surprise when he actually happened to be at his desk that day. He lit up when he saw us and needed no arm-twisting to speak to the group.

Journalism students are accustomed to hearing war stories from their elders, but in Kelley's case they literally were war stories, and we were rapt. Kelley punctuated these tales with a box full of props, which included his well-worn flak jacket. It was pretty clear he had done this rap a time or two before, but it didn't matter. He was a recruiter's dream--inspirational, yet down to earth. Everything about him said, "You too could be doing stories like this."

Now, of course, we are left to wonder how many of the stories were true.

USA Today recently disclosed that a number of Kelley's more colorful foreign reports, in a pattern reaching back a decade, were inventions. There were further instances of plagiarized material, and over the course of the paper's investigation Kelley apparently attempted to "coach" some sources in how to parry the allegations against him.

It was the second episode in a year of serial fabrication at a major American newspaper, the other being the transgressions of the New York Times' Jayson Blair (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003). As it happens, Blair also attended this journalism school. While no one is holding Maryland accountable for the immoral actions of two grown men, I'm profoundly saddened by their connection to a program that so many others have honored with work of the highest caliber. And as a journalist, I'm profoundly angry.

Did Kelley's reporting have the hallmark of work that was too good to be true? Did the paper overlook warning signs, as some in Jill Rosen's story in this issue (see "Who Knows Jack?") would have it?

Maybe. But jealousy is part of the trade. Anybody who has been in journalism as long as I have has seen colleagues with the uncanny knack for being in just the right place at just the right time, who are able to come across just the right anecdote for a lead, who can coax just the right quote from a source to make a story jump. Sometimes the material was so perfect that you wondered if it was an embellishment. But then you thought, well, maybe he just works harder than I do, and in your shame and insecurity you banished the uncharitable thought--though never entirely.

So I won't point fingers. But I will raise a broader concern, one echoed by my colleague Rem Rieder, who rattles off a list of other recent transgressions at papers all around the country (see Full Court Press). As individual crimes they don't rise to Blair or Kelley proportions, but taken together they are just as troubling. Maybe more troubling, as the actions of individuals can be written off as aberrations. Half a dozen episodes speak to something endemic to the system.

What's happening here? Is it the pressure of the nonstop news cycle? Is it the pressure to produce more news with fewer people? Is it the self-imposed pressure of people grinding in an increasingly competitive industry? Is it the ready access to computerized databases, making it too easy or tempting to cheat? Is it a "Survivor" and "Apprentice" culture that says the means don't matter, only the ends?

It may be none of those things, or all. But we'd better figure it out, and fast.


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