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.
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, naive and enthusiastic, willing to do anything to make his mark at the fledging 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, midmorning, 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 spot-light 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 naivete. 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 naive 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."
"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 Elian Gonzalez, 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 after-math 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."
"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 long-standing 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 naive? 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."
THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK KELLEY
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 Jet-Capade, 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."
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 "joumalistic 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.
Assistant Managing Editor Jill Rosen wrote about coverage of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson in AJR's February/March issue.
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|Publication:||American Journalism Review|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2004|
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