AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Continuation of Who Knows Jack?   

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

'I knew this guy had this tendency," says reporter Don Kirk. "Why didn't they get him for 20 years?"

Kirk describes what he calls an "underlying contempt for reporting" that permeates USA Today. When he was there, he says, editors regularly inserted wire copy into his stories without telling him and would second-guess his take on international events in favor of what they'd see on TV. "That's no doubt one of the reasons why Jack was taken so seriously when he should have been viewed as an overeager neophyte and curbed at the onset from a tendency to tell tall tales," he says.

Gallagher says that's "ridiculous," adding that USA Today is "built on the assumption that the most important aspect of the paper is the relationship between" editors and reporters. As for whether or not the USA Today culture might have contributed to the Jack Kelley situation, he says that's part of what the inquiry committee is considering.

But some USA Today staffers say though there were most certainly longstanding doubts about Kelley, such thinking wasn't all that pervasive in the newsroom. "There was a relatively small group of people talking about this," one reporter says. "There was not a buzz across the newsroom, though you might get that impression from those who are consumed by it."

Since the news of Kelley's deception broke, Linda Mathews, the cover story editor, says people have called her to say they wondered about this and that. "I'd say, 'Then why didn't they say something?' The answer was always, 'I couldn't prove it.' "

Timothy Kenny, a USA Today world editor who was with the paper until 1993, says he never had a problem with Kelley's work and, in fact, thought his Persian Gulf War reporting was particularly good, especially his stories about Filipinos in Kuwait. "There was no reason for me to question anything, and if I did, he had the answers," Kenny says.

Because of his own experience overseas, Kenny says he was equipped to know if a reporter was playing loose with the facts. But, he says, "Were [his editors later] able to ask the questions of people you sometimes have to ask? If you're working overseas and you're not really a good professional, you could make stuff up...and [an editor would] never know."

But even if Kelley did take some liberties, Kenny believes the reporter's work was more often legitimate. "Even if these questions prove to be true," he says. "I'm sure a lot of stories were absolutely accurate and good."

If Kelley did anything wrong, many suppose it was more likely along the lines of plagiarizing and embellishing rather than full-scale fabricating. Like the time in 1997 when he attributed the quote of a Red Cross spokesman to the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In that case, Kelley didn't just put the words of the spokesman in the official's mouth, he wrote the lead-in to the quote to make it seem as if the president was responding directly to a question, "shouting" his answer back.

When Mathews edited Kelley, it never occurred to her that he made things up. Relying too heavily on a source? Sure. Being na´ve? Maybe. But not making things up. "It's not as if anyone here lived in a cave and didn't think about these issues," she says. "If you've done any foreign reporting you know there are pipe artists out there."

USA Today is indeed "light on foreign experience," she says. But even if the paper could boast all the overseas brainpower in the world, she's not sure that would have made a difference. "If Jack really was making stuff up, would anyone necessarily have known that, even if they had 20 years of experience?" she asks. "There were experienced people on the metro desk of the New York Times and it took them a long while to figure out Jayson Blair was making stuff up. Ben Bradlee had a lot of experience and he didn't find out about Janet Cooke....

"If editors can be blamed for anything here, it's being too busy.... When I beat myself up at night over this, I ask myself, 'Why didn't I pay more attention?' The answer, I swear to God, is that I had a hundred other things to do.

"I don't think a newspaper can protect itself from a wily and creative fabricator.... I hope that's not what he is."

Jack Kelley knows his stories were above board. He knows he didn't plagiarize. And above all else, he knows that the people who know him best know these things, too.

But those people who know him best, the ones he's counting on to prove his case, are sick and sad that they can't do that. They want to. And maybe before his lie they would have. But not after the lie. They can't.

Gregg Jones, who was so impressed with Kelley's work during the war in Afghanistan, would be shocked to learn that Kelley engaged in "wholesale journalistic fraud." "But," he says, "I'm troubled that he'd go to such elaborate lengths to thwart the investigation--I don't know what to make of that. I racked my brain and tried to put myself in that situation, like you knew your body of work was being looked at and you had to point to one story on which your whole career hinged and you couldn't find an interpreter.... I find it difficult to understand that leap."

Mathews was once one of Kelley's most stalwart newsroom defenders. Then Kelley didn't just lie to the investigators, he lied to her. Very upset to catch wind of the investigation last fall, she asked him about it. Kelley told her about his Belgrade reporting, about the two translators. "Of course the truth turned out to be very different than that," she says. Then once the whole thing broke, he called her at home to own up about the lie. "He told me how he 'instantly' realized this was a mistake. Even that confession turned out to be a lie," she says with undeniable disgust. "He didn't own up to it for two months. Two months!

"At that point I'd gone to bat for him, I'd yelled at people here. I felt kind of like a fool, left out to dry.

"I don't know what that tells you about the quality of the rest of his work," she says. "It's hard to argue with where we are now."

And where we are now is with a team of USA Today journalists, led by some of the industry's most esteemed editors, continuing to comb through each and every story Kelley filed. It's a daunting pile to ponder, accumulated over nearly 22 years. They're looking to conclude once and for all if Jack Kelley's reporting was solid and also how to ensure that the newsroom is better protected from such questions in the future.

Jim Cox is hoping hard that the inquiry provides answers. Though he's supposed to know Jack Kelley best, having spent more time overseas with him than anyone in the newsroom, he just doesn't know what to think.

"How could colleagues of mine who I like and respect have such a different view of someone who I like and respect?" Cox asks. "I've heard people chalk it up to envy and professional jealousy, or maybe because he's a born-again Christian and there was hostility about that among the reporters. I heard it suggested there was resentment because he was a pet of [USA Today founder Allen H.] Neuharth's or [former Publisher Tom] Curley's.... I don't think my colleagues are that small and petty, at least I hope they're not. Which leaves me with no answer."

Cox thought Jack Kelly was an exemplary reporter. But he's also a liar, and that's "extremely disappointing." So which is it? Who has he been working side by side with all these years? It's all down to the inquiry.

"I hope they put a punctuation mark on this, a definitive punctuation mark," Cox says. "Either tell us we worked with the real deal, or tell us we worked with a fraud. Don't leave us with gray."

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