AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Who Knows Jack?   

For years USA Today star Jack Kelley filed amazingly vivid reports from virtually every major international scene. And for just as long, doubts simmered around his work. But to many who thought they knew him, Kelley seemed above such questions, the last person they’d suspect in a lie.

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

Editor's Note: Since this article was written, USA Today revealed at AJR's deadline that Jack Kelley fabricated major stories and plagiarized at least two dozen times. The paper said Kelley's "journalistic sins were sweeping and substantial." This story demonstrates the doubts that surrounded the reporter for years, and the depth of loyalty he inspired in some colleagues that possibly allowed his acts to go uncovered.

The phone is ringing too early in the morning. Reporter Matthew Fisher, who had been sleeping, answers, annoyed and ready to give whoever it is what for. But it's his friend Jack Kelley, out of breath and practically shouting into the receiver, "They're going to kill me!" They being the Chechen mafia.

Kelley was running from them through the streets of Moscow. He'd made it to a pay phone. He needed Fisher to call Kelley's editor at USA Today, tell her that he was in trouble. She had to get the U.S. Embassy to open its gates so that he could run in. If he had to stand at the locked gates, Kelley said, he'd be dead.

Fisher knew Kelley had been working on a story about an assumed mafia hit on an American businessman. The two had just talked about it over lunch at a Moscow diner. In fact, the day after that lunch, Kelley told Fisher that "he'd been shown" photos of the two of them eating and now the mafia men were trying to figure out who Fisher was. They beat him up in the hotel elevator, Kelley told Fisher. He feared for his life.

And now the call. Fisher got ahold of Kelley's editor. Kelley made it to the embassy and was escorted safely back to the United States. It all worked out. But to Fisher, it didn't all add up.

"I'll tell you, I've lived in Russia," says Fisher, who's been reporting overseas for 20 years and now is based in Moscow for the Canadian CanWest News Services. "If they want someone dead in Russia, they're dead. It's their country, they don't fuck around. Jack was staying at their hotel.

"That to me doesn't have the ring of truth."

The ring of truth and Jack Kelley. To some, those concepts are intertwined, exchangeable, a given. Others, however, wonder just how many times the one has abandoned the other. Especially after Kelley, a 21-year USA Today veteran, with the paper since its very first issue, lied to editors during an investigation last year into the veracity of his work. He had one of his former translators pose as someone who could vouch for a story, admitting it only after editors figured out the scam. Given the choice between being fired and resigning, Kelley quit USA Today in January.

As the most prominent foreign correspondent for the nation's largest newspaper, Kelley filed hundreds of stories from all over the globe. For about the last decade, he had a hand in nearly every major international news event, hitting A1 constantly with his trademark vivid accounts of violence and strife.

He was newspaper legend. With the interviews no one else could match, the hair-raising tales from the front, the marvelous eyewitness accounts. And now, with the lie. And plagiarism claims. And a power committee examining every last thing he ever wrote because none of it, anymore, is a given.

Kelley implores that his lie was a one-time deal, a mistake made under pressure that has nothing to do with his stories, all of which he stands firmly behind. Reporting the truth, he says over and over and over again, is his passion. And, he adds, those who know him know that's the case. But the thing is, who really knows him?

Some know him as a fresh-faced kid, eager, naïve and enthusiastic, willing to do anything to make his mark at the fledgling newspaper where he started on the ground floor. Others know a swashbuckling foreign correspondent with an almost cinematic blend of fearlessness and sensitivity--he'll dodge bullets and sidestep landmines, then, somehow, find the words or the tone to let people know they can trust him with their secrets.

But quite a few others, particularly these days, only know that they doubt the whole package. They see a reporter who's just too damn lucky. And one who's clearly not above a lie. "Jack is a complex individual," says Fisher, just one of Kelley's longtime colleagues struggling to figure out what is knowable.

"The people who knew me and knew my work and trusted me," Kelley says, "they knew then as they do now that I've never fabricated or plagiarized a story.... People who know me know I didn't do this."

So, who really knows Jack?

Jack Kelley is waiting in a nearly empty Panera Bread restaurant out behind a suburban shopping plaza in Maryland. It's February, mid-morning, and the former foreign correspondent has the place to himself, aside from some moms and coffee-sipping retirees. Exactly a year ago his marquee byline assumed its expected front-page position over a story about terrorism. Fresh from a trip to the border of Jordan and Iraq, the globetrotting Kelley was about to head back to the region to document the impending war. From mayhem to muffin shop.

Kelley settles into a booth near the back. Pale and gaunt, he looks nothing like the vibrant head shot that's been running with all the scandal stories. He's unassuming almost to the point of apologetic--sorry to have to meet all the way out here, trying to pay for the coffees. He's hoping that this talk will somehow lead to his vindication. On the table in front of him he places a briefcase full of proof.

In a subdued and earnest voice, he starts at the beginning, telling the synopsized story of his life, the same one that he seems to tell anyone who's writing something about him. There's the part about how he knew, even at age 8, that he wanted to be a reporter; how he started a neighborhood newspaper to investigate such scoops as what Mrs. So-and-So was planting or why the guy on his corner was taking his dog to the vet. This part of the story sometimes comes with a vignette about how his young self broke news about a neighbor having an affair with the widow down the street, but he's stopped telling that part--the alleged offender still lives in the region.

Continuing, there's the writing for the PTA newsletter, editing his high school paper, attending college at the University of Maryland where he reported like crazy for the campus paper, the Diamondback. When his journalism professor required 18 published stories to get an A, he left 18 in the dust.

Though Kelley is 43 now and it's been more than 20 years since college, that teacher with the 18-things-for-an-A hasn't forgotten one of her favorite overachievers. "I remember his first assignment--an obituary," says Maurine Beasley, who still teaches at Maryland. "He screwed it up. I gave him a D. After class he came up to me and said he wanted to do it again. He said, 'Dr. Beasley, I just don't make Ds.' "

Barbara Hines, assistant dean of the journalism school when Kelley was a student, clearly recalls the young Kelley as tireless, passionate and self-disciplined. "He had the highest standards that he set for himself," says Hines, who's now a journalism professor at Howard University.

It was Hines who encouraged Kelley to apply to USA Today. And she might be the reason he got the job, even after an apparently flat initial interview. After that session, "He came back to see me, and he looked crestfallen," she says. "I asked how it went and he said, 'They told me I don't have enough experience.' And I said, 'And you accepted that?' He just looked at me. Then he turned and walked out of my office. And he went back there."

Kelley replays on autopilot his early USA Today days like he does his childhood. After his start in July 1982 as a news assistant, there was much photocopying, occasional pantyhose-buying--all kinds of minutiae he had to attend to before he could get to any actual reporting. So he'd stay late and come in on weekends to try to make it happen. He says he felt honored to be there, amid the buzz and optimism of starting something from scratch that could be great.

He got his name into the first issue. And four years later he was officially a staff reporter, establishing himself and earning his editors' trust on big stories like the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the transgressions of evangelist Jim Bakker.

Steve Davis, now a journalism professor at Syracuse University, edited some of Kelley's first stories. Kelley's work ethic blew him away. All reporters work hard, he says, "but not as hard as Jack."

"He produced stories on time, he worked like a dog, he never let me down," Davis says. "I saw in Jack something I didn't see in very many reporters--he was just totally committed to the story."

A few editors and reporters suppose that rather than cutting his teeth on national coverage, Kelley should have first covered cops or a city council. If you work a local beat "and you misspell someone's name, you're going to hear about it," says former USA Today World Editor Timothy Kenny, who worked with Kelley and is now a media consultant. "The whole value system of how-well-did-you-do becomes evident; you understand it immediately."

But Kelley says starting in the spotlight only made him work harder to be "100 percent accurate." "Rather than hearing from the city council president, you'd hear from sources all across the country," he says, adding about his swift ascent: "I'm so thankful. I've been blessed. I never took it for granted. I tried to approach each and every story like it was my first and last."

'I never saw myself as being ambitious," Kelley says. "I saw myself as being in love with the profession. I'm a people person. I love to get to know different kinds of people." And the people, they love him right back. "He's a Clintonesque figure," his friend Matthew Fisher says. "He's got a fantastic personality like Bill Clinton. People are besotted by him and want to do things to help him."

Except unlike Clinton, Jack Kelley is rated G. He's polite and clean-cut. There's no smoking and certainly no drinking. His ardent churchgoing is no secret, nor was his desire to save himself for marriage. Even the guy's desk was spotless. When he smiles, people half-expect one of those gleaming pings like in a toothpaste commercial.

"He's someone who seemed they would never, never lie," says a USA Today reporter. "He's like an altar boy. He's pure almost to the point of naïveté. I never heard Jack curse, not ever. Some of the foreign staff were like cowboys. But Jack was pure as the driven snow."

Helen Kennedy, a politics writer for New York's Daily News, was a war-zone newbie whom Kelley took under his wing in Macedonia. His ease in the chaos impressed her, as did his bravery--she recalls him as the type who would traipse through areas that were supposed to be mined.

Some say Kelley believes God is protecting him.

In describing his brush with the Chechen mafia to Christian Reader magazine, Kelley talks of praying as he ran through the streets, and then of an image coming to him "of an apartment building with the number 925 on it and an elderly man next to a door up one flight of stairs." Next thing he knows, there's building 925 and an old man beckoning him in. He told the magazine he waited in an apartment there with a blue sofa and a stocked refrigerator until his pursuers passed. When his interpreter went back the next day to thank the old man, she found the apartment had been vacant a year. Kelley told the magazine: "This was just one of many times God has spared me."

Tony Mauro, a former USA Today reporter who now covers the U.S. Supreme Court for Legal Times, remembers that when he'd bring his daughter to work, Kelley was the one staffer who'd go out of his way to fuss over her. "Just being with him in the office, or walking with him on the street, you could see he was the kind of guy people would just walk up to and talk to," Mauro says. "What you could perceive of him, it matched how he was then able to get these amazing stories."

Says reporter Jim Cox: "Jack knew the janitors by name and the ladies who pour the coffee by name...and all their kids by name."

Cox, who's traveled on assignment with Kelley more than any other USA Today reporter, to places including Israel, Kuwait and Hong Kong, has witnessed his friend getting some of his famous gets. In Kuwait, Cox remembers coming back to the hotel room he and Kelley shared and finding a half-dozen Filipino maids there, many of them crying, telling Kelley about being raped. That resulted in Kelley's attention-getting report about the mistreatment of foreign housekeepers in Kuwait.

"He had an incredible rapport with people, especially people who were somehow victimized by violence or corruption or who happened to be very poor," Cox says. "Maybe it was his body language or the tone of his voice or what he actually says, but people tend to be very open in his company, even if they'd have dark and horrible experiences that they wouldn't be comfortable talking to their own family members about."

Doug Stanglin, one of Kelley's editors, says that when Kelley travels, he's the kind of reporter who befriends the person behind the hotel desk, the doorman, the taxi driver--the everyday folks. "He'd very quickly plug into the people in a country," Stanglin says.

A frequent knock against Kelley's reporting is skepticism about how he drops into countries where he doesn't speak the language and immediately mines brilliant quotes. Stanglin, who reported overseas for United Press International, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, says, "I'm a little put off by these very naïve kinds of charges. Anybody who's spent any time overseas knows if you're a good solid foreign correspondent, you've made contacts--you have a fixer, you have a driver. You can immediately start working when your plane lands."

Former Time magazine correspondent David Aikman agrees, after seeing Kelley get "a remarkable handhold on some very difficult reporting" in Moscow even though he didn't speak Russian. "I have met reporters here and there--just very good reporters--and the fact that they didn't know the local language is not a bar to them getting stories," Aikman says. "I put Jack in that category."

Stanglin remembers Kelley phoning in with news about a skirmish in Kosovo during the lead-up to war there in 1999. "No one else was reporting that," Stanglin says. "Here's Jack, one guy and a phone. And every time something like that happened, the next day or within hours there would be reports about exactly that. It showed me he wasn't sitting in a hotel room in Belgrade making stuff up."

'You know what's amazing?" Jack Kelley asks. "I've always sat back and said I've tried to do two things in journalism. One is report stories that no one else could report and develop contacts that no one else thought to develop. I worked around the clock to do that. It's those two things that caused suspicion among those who don't know me."

On top of the table Kelley has arranged a neatly stacked pile of photocopies, mostly of news stories. He reaches for one stapled packet to illustrate his point. The top sheet is a printout of a BBC story headlined "Mystery over 'Musharraf interview.' "

"I got one of the first print interviews" with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, Kelley says. "The day the story was published, the Pakistani foreign ministry denied an interview even took place. The BBC wrote a story implying I fabricated the entire thing." But there was an interview, a coup Kelley got thanks to a plugged-in fixer who got him into a Musharraf family gathering, something the foreign ministry didn't even know about. "One of Musharraf's family members took a picture of me with the president," he says, eagerly leafing through the packet to a photocopy of that snapshot. "Musharraf himself even called me on my cell phone" to apologize.

Gregg Jones was reporting out of Pakistan for the Dallas Morning News when the Musharraf brouhaha hit and also when Kelley broke another big story that was initially doubted--that U.S. Special Forces had moved into Afghanistan to hunt Osama bin Laden. "It was a frustrating situation in Islamabad," Jones says. "It was just hard to get information as to what was going on. Everyone was scrambling. It was an incredibly competitive atmosphere, and obviously this was a big scoop.

"It's precisely illustrative of the type of aggressive reporting Jack was known for," Jones continues. "Jack was out to break stories. That sort of became his stock-in-trade."

Jones worked out of Kelley and Jim Cox's room in Pakistan a bit that trip because he got to town too late to score his own room. On a later trip, he heard that Kelley was living in the home of his fixer's family, Jones says, still impressed. "The mother just loved him like a son."

Knight Ridder Moscow Bureau Chief Mark McDonald also worked around Kelley in Pakistan--they even shared some sources "in the various intelligence communities, in ministries and embassies, in the field, even in the most dangerous border areas," McDonald writes in an e-mail. "He sure wasn't a lobby-sitter."

Though they'll deny it, Matthew Kalman says, most parachuters--correspondents who drop into a region to report and then leave--are lazy. "They sit in hotel rooms and file the story off CNN. You'd be amazed." The former Jerusalem correspondent for USA Today, who now reports from that region for the San Francisco Chronicle and Toronto's Globe and Mail, says Kelley used a "fantastic" network of fixers to get into places most parachuters couldn't touch.

Kalman adds: "He has been taken to places here by people I know who would not take me there."

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