AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

The Rise and Fall of Jack Kelley   

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

Related reading:
   » Who Knows Jack?

July 1982 > Jack Kelley is hired as a news assistant at startup USA Today, just after graduating from the University of Maryland.

September 15, 1982 > USA Today launches. Kelley has a story in the first issue.

1986 > Kelley becomes a reporter; the Challenger space shuttle explosion is among his first assignments.

1988 > Kelley joins USA Today founder Allen H. Neuharth on JetCapade, his heralded reporting tour of 32 nations.

November 25, 1992 > A 568-word Kelley story from Berlin describes Germany's hatred of Gypsies. (A significant portion of Kelley's story is similar to parts of a 3,500-word Washington Post piece on Gypsies from earlier that month.)

November 1996 > Kelley writes about an American businessman gunned down, supposedly by the Chechen mafia. Kelley says the mafia wanted to kill him and he literally ran for his life out of town.

May 2, 1997 > Kelley attributes a spokesman's quote to the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The misattribution was not corrected.

September 2, 1998 > A 658-word Kelley story from Pakistan describes Darra Adam Khel, a village that exists to sell guns. (A significant portion of Kelley's story is similar to a 1,300-word Washington Post piece that ran July 9, 1998.)

April 26, 1999 > After Kelley returns from a trip to Macedonia, USA Today runs his vivid account of trekking for two-and-a-half days with Kosovo Liberation Army fighters as they searched for Serb forces, at one point ambushing some Serbs in a deadly battle.

July 14, 1999 > Kelley files a 417-word scoop from Belgrade about how he "examined" a notebook that contained a direct order from the Yugoslav army to "cleanse" a Kosovo village.

March 10, 2000 > In a dramatic A1 story from Cuba, Kelley is apparently a witness on a beach as Cubans get onto a boat, trying to make it to Florida. Some of them die in a storm at sea and Kelley gets play-by-play details of their demise from survivors.

August 9, 2001 > Kelley happens to be walking by a Jerusalem pizza shop as a suicide bomber detonates a bomb. His A1 story the following day details how he saw the bomber enter the restaurant and how, later, arms and legs "rained down onto the street."

September 1, 2001 > An A1 Kelley story from the West Bank describes how he observed a group of Jewish settlers as they set out to kill "blood-sucking Arab" taxi passengers. The settlers' wives and children helped as they fired upon a taxi, Kelley wrote.

September 28, 2001 > Kelley breaks news of U.S. Special Forces being inside Afghanistan hunting Osama bin Laden. Controversy flares inside and outside USA Today about the validity of the story. Eventually, other news outlets confirm it.

April 2002 > Kelley is named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting.

May 2003 > New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigns after being caught plagiarizing. Later the Times reveals that Blair lied, fabricated and plagiarized in dozens of cases. USA Today editors solicit staffers for concerns about the accuracy of USA Today stories. Just before that happens, someone sends an anonymous letter questioning Kelley's work.

May-June 2003 > The paper begins trying to verify some of Kelley's more controversial stories. A staffer tells a top editor of a complaint at the time about Kelley's 1999 Belgrade story.

September 27, 2003 > Under increasing pressure to find sources to verify the 1999 Belgrade story, Kelley tells investigators that he found a translator who helped him report the piece.

October 22, 2003 > Kelley's last story runs in USA Today. He had only written two others since August.

November 2003 > Kelley hires attorneys, ceases to cooperate with the investigation.

January 6, 2004 > Given the choice between resigning or being fired, Kelley resigns.

January 13, 2004 > USA Today issues a statement detailing how Kelley deceived the newspaper during the internal investigation by having a friend pose as a translator who could validate the 1999 Belgrade story. About a week later, after reports surface alleging Kelley plagiarized two Washington Post stories, USA Today announces a prestigious trio of journalists will lead a review of everything Kelley has written for the paper during his 21-year career there.

March 19, 2004 > The inquiry team reports Kelley faked major stories, lied and plagiarized. It says his "journalistic sins" were "sweeping and substantial."