‘USA Today’ Staffers Push for Details on Kelley Departure

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By: Joe Strupp

Although editors at USA Today say the controversy over allegations of fabricated stories by longtime foreign correspondent Jack Kelley is over, newsroom staffers are demanding more information about the situation that resulted in Kelley’s resignation last week and the internal investigation that led to his departure.

The story took another turn Saturday, when Kelley, 43, told The Washington Post, that he resigned because he made an indefensible mistake while attempting to defend himself during the investigation. He said he “panicked and used poor judgement” when he encouraged a translator who was not present during a 1999 meeting with a human rights activist in Yugoslavia to impersonate another translator who was there. Kelley told the Post that the woman who agreed to help him called the USA Today (Click for QuikCap) journalist assigned to investigate Kelley and verified Kelley’s account as if she had been there.

Before Kelley’s revelation Saturday, USA Today staffers were clamoring for more information. “We demand accountability from government, and here we are not being accountable to our readers,” said Tom Kenworthy, a Denver-based reporter for USA Today. “There is a fair amount of frustration.”

Kenworthy’s views were echoed by a number of reporters following Kelley’s decision last Tuesday to quit the paper after more than 20 years. Many said the paper’s failure in recent days to explain to staff or readers the allegations against Kelley and the investigation that reviewed his work left many concerned.

“It is a closed issue based on what we know now,” USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen told E&P on Friday. “It is an internal matter and I don’t want to get into it.” Similar limited explanations were given by editors during a series of meetings with USA Today employees last Thursday, staffers said, leaving many upset. But Jurgensen stressed that no new information would be coming out at this point and said she believes the paper’s reputation would not be harmed. “We have worked hard to improve our credibility and will continue to work hard,” she said.

In Saturday’s Post (Click for QuikCap), Kelley said he realized the magnitude of his error and confessed to the paper about two weeks after the bogus call. “I resigned because I felt I should no longer work at USA Today because of what I’d done,” he said. Kelley suggested that his action stemmed from his belief that the investigation was “a witch hunt to drive me out of USA Today.”

Kelley nonetheless defended his work for USA Today and said he still stands behind every story written during a 21-year career there.

The Washington Post story may bring light to the matter that has troubled many USA Today journalists.

“I think people want to know what happened and don’t want to have to read about it in another paper,” said Greg Zoroya, a six-year USA Today foreign correspondent who worked with Kelley. “It would be nice if we could be as forthcoming as The New York Times (Click for QuikCap) was [following the Jayson Blair scandal]. This is obviously not as serious, but that kind of candor is very helpful. I wish we had it here.”

USA Today began looking into allegations since June that Kelley falsified elements of stories following an anonymous tip. The daily assigned another reporter to review several past Kelley stories, but apparently no definitive proof of wrongdoing was found.

Kelley, who could not be reached for comment by E&P, reportedly told others that he resigned because the investigation had created a “hostile atmosphere” at the paper in which he was unable to work.

Since the resignation, Jurgensen and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher have declined to say exactly what the investigation found or why they chose to pursue it so closely. The paper did not even report on the matter until Friday, when it published a four-paragraph item saying that an investigation had occurred, but that no retractions or corrections were planned.

“There are concerns about our future. Are we going to get scrutinized in the future if there is an anonymous complaint?” asked one reporter who requested anonymity. “[The top editors] are not saying anything.”

Another longtime scribe wondered if the paper’s image — which took years to overcome its McPaper beginnings and grow into a respected product — might take a beating from the incident and failure to come clean. “To see this happen to our first Pulitzer [Prize] finalist really sets us back,” the reporter said, referring to Kelley’s 2002 Pulitzer honor.

Jurgensen said the paper has no plans to change its policies or procedures in light of the Kelly investigation, pointing out that, “We already have pretty stringent practices in place.” She added that the paper has had a reader editor, an ombudsman-like position, for the past several years.

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