‘USA Today’ Editors ‘Should Not Emerge Unscathed,’ Says Pulitzer Winner

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By: John Hanchette

I am heartbroken. The professional demise of USA Today’s ace foreign correspondent Jack Kelley — as described in painful detail in the March 19-21 weekend edition of that paper — tears me up like few things have in four decades of professional journalism.

As a founding reporter and Newsline editor at that fledgling newspaper — Gannett’s grand experiment — when it began in 1982, I soon noticed an eager young newsroom rookie who had reportorial stardom written all over him. Through the years, even after I returned to Gannett News Service, I considered Jack Kelley a talented friend and, yes, a protege of sorts.

Kelley’s enthusiasm soon became famous within Gannett. He wanted to know everything about newspapering and he wanted to know it right away. He had that indefinable essence of a good journalist that made acquaintances and strangers alike want to talk to him, to tell him secrets. To know him was to trust him.

As his career progressed, Jack Kelley was lightning on a stick. Everything he touched turned to journalistic gold. As even USA Today acknowledged in a condemnatory headline, he had “unbelievable timing.” Where Jack Kelley showed up, so did news.

I must admit, when I first heard two months ago that editors at the paper were fact-checking his recent work and questioning his reportage, I chalked it up to professional jealousy, to the newsroom drudges and drone bees — ubiquitous in the profession — who envied his success and growing fame, and decided to chip away at it.

Alas, according to a team of reporters and veteran editors who spent seven weeks examining more than 700 of his stories written in the last decade, the misgivings — whatever the motive — turned out to be true. The evidence indicates he fabricated several of his most memorable stories and concocted elaborate instructions for former associates he had quoted anonymously to mislead USA Today investigators who were checking his accuracy.

Perhaps his most famous story, written three years ago and which almost won him a Pulitzer, provided riveting and gory details of a late summer suicide bombing in a Jerusalem pizza parlor. Kelley claimed among other things that he had bumped into the bomber face-to-face just minutes before the blast, recognized him from later viewing his decapitated head and noseless, lipless face on the floor, and that he also had witnessed from 90 feet away three other heads separated from their bodies rolling down the street “with their eyes still blinking.”

Israel’s national police say the actual bomber’s head and upper torso flew into the ceiling at the blast and got stuck in an oven vent. At least USA Today editors caught the “eyes still blinking” assertion in the rough copy and excised it.

Which brings up a key point — one that indicates USA Today editors should not emerge unscathed in all this.

Dozens of Kelley’s stories cited anonymous intelligence officials and other unidentified sources whose names could not be used in order to protect them from retaliation. This obviously proved too much a temptation for Kelley.

As USA Today founder Al Neuharth, now retired in Florida, wrote presciently this past January only days after questions were raised about Kelley’s copy, “Anonymous-source misuse or abuse put Jack Kelley in the hot seat and led to his forced resignation.”

Neuharth continued: “For more than 20 years, I’ve preached that anonymous sources are the root of evil in journalism. It’s so simple. Most anonymous sources often tell more than they know. Reporters who are allowed to use such sources sometimes write more than they hear. Editors too often let them get away with it. Result: Fiction gets mixed with fact.”

The newspaper’s founder called for “journalists at all levels to ban all anonymous sources.” Gannett came close to doing that four years ago in a formal code of ethics called “Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.” I was on the committee that put it together after the company was embarrassed by a costly scandal at its Cincinnati Enquirer paper in which an investigative reporter wrote and had published all sorts of alleged corporate misbehavior at Chiquita Brands International and attributed much of it to an anonymous source — instead of the illegally taped conversations he had secretly recorded.

A key segment of these Gannett “Principles of Ethical Conduct” states: “The use of unnamed sources in published stories should be rare and only for important news.” Reporters are instructed to “Corroborate information from an unnamed source through another source or sources and/or by documentary information. Rare exceptions must be approved by the editor.”

The code continues: “Hold editors as well as reporters accountable when unnamed sources are used. When a significant story to be published relies on a source who will not be named, it is the responsibility of the senior news executive to confirm the identity of the source and to review the information provided. This may require the editor to meet the source.”

The code’s training manual states that unnamed sources are to be used only “as a last resort,” and that “the top editor must be absolutely confident that the source is solid, that the information the source has provided is solid, that data backs up that material.” The editor, it continues, “will at times flat-out need to talk to the source, to look him or her in the eye, to get the feel for the conviction of the source and the depth of knowledge behind the information.”

This code was promulgated widely throughout Gannett newspapers and its wire service, but USA Today — and certainly Kelley — apparently enjoyed an exemption.

True, it was impractical and unwieldy to apply such principles to stories from Russia and Afghanistan and Cuba and other places Kelley roamed. But it seems a little disingenuous to corporately applaud a reporter for two decades, to laud him publicly and ceaselessly for years, and to nominate him for several Pulitzer Prizes, mostly based on stories which violated a basic company tenet — and then hold him totally responsible for ignoring that principle.

To USA Today’s credit, it also published last Friday the fact that internal investigators found several of Kelley’s stories, even controversial pieces and some articles quoting anonymous intelligence sources, to be accurate and thorough. It will now be interesting to see if Neuharth’s Dictum prevails — if the use of anonymous sources will be banned from USA Today. Personally, I doubt it.

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