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January 19, 2004
Ascent of USA Today Reporter Stumbled on Colleagues' Doubts
By JACQUES STEINBERG
Within the offices of USA Today, there have long been two schools of thought about Jack Kelley, the longtime foreign correspondent who resigned abruptly early this month.
In the view of Allen H. Neuharth, who founded the newspaper in 1982, the same year Mr. Kelley joined as an editorial assistant, his talents earned him a coveted berth: a seat on a company plane as Mr. Neuharth barnstormed the world in 1988, interviewing heads of state in 32 countries for a reporting tour he called the "Jetcapade.'' Mr. Neuharth also tapped Mr. Kelley as a co-author of two books drawn from the experience, lauding him in an appreciation for his "enthusiasm and professionalism.''
Soon afterward, Mr. Kelley became a roving foreign correspondent, dispatched from the newspaper's headquarters in northern Virginia to report on the biggest international news of the day - the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Haiti, Kosovo - from which he would file front-page scoops and amaze his editors with tales of derring-do.
But back in northern Virginia, skepticism about Mr. Kelley's work grew. Tales of how Mr. Kelley had stumbled upon the diary of a Serbian girl he likened to Anne Frank, or narrowly survived a death threat from the Russian mafia, engendered more than the jealousy typical in newsrooms. Some of Mr. Kelley's colleagues were so suspicious of his dispatches that as long ago as the mid-1990's, they began keeping crude dossiers on him - questioning the plausibility of his battlefield descriptions, clipping articles from other newspapers that included phrasing similar to Mr. Kelley's, and even making copies of his correspondence with editors.
While the extent to which these concerns reached upper management is unclear, it is known that Mr. Kelley, now 43, was one of the few reporters at USA Today given the latitude to write articles based on unidentified sources, something that had been effectively forbidden by Mr. Neuharth before he retired as chairman of Gannett, USA Today's parent company, in 1989.
It was only after the resignation of Jayson Blair, who was found last May to have fabricated or plagiarized parts of at least three dozen articles in The New York Times, that Mr. Kelley's editors responded to an anonymous internal complaint about his work by asking a former deputy managing editor to investigate some of his articles.
Pressed, in a new climate of stricter journalistic accountability, to verify the reporting for a 1999 article that had long raised doubts among some colleagues - Mr. Kelley had written of a "Yugoslav army, three-ring notebook'' that contained "a direct order to a lieutenant to 'cleanse' '' a village' - he made what the newspaper says was a fatal mistake: Mr. Kelley permitted a woman who had not been involved in the reporting to pass herself off as its translator. After being confronted with the deception, he resigned under pressure on Jan. 6, the newspaper said.
But what USA Today hoped would be the end of the story turned out to be anything but. Last Tuesday, after the newspaper announced that it had concluded a seven-month investigation into a sampling of Mr. Kelley's work without resolving whether he had fabricated any information, several staff members buttonholed top editors to raise questions about other articles by Mr. Kelley. (At least two included phrases or sentences that closely tracked those in previous reports in The Washington Post.)
On Friday, USA Today changed course, announcing in an article that it would appoint an independent panel to examine every article Mr. Kelley had ever filed.
Mr. Kelley declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement released by his lawyer late Friday, he said: "I'm proud of my work and know that my reporting will hold up under scrutiny. I hope that this investigation is both full and fair.''
For its part, the newspaper has suggested that nothing less than its credibility is riding on the outcome of its inquiry, not least because Mr. Kelley, in 2002, became the first reporter at the newspaper to be named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
"In the days since Kelley's termination, new questions have arisen,'' USA Today's editor, Karen Jurgensen, and its publisher, Craig Moon, said in a statement on Friday. "They raise enough concerns that we feel we need to vet Kelley's record completely and report the results publicly.''
"In the end,'' the statement added, "USA Today readers, staff and advertisers will benefit because nothing is more important than the trust people place in us on a daily basis.''
For more than two decades, USA Today placed an increasing amount of that trust on the shoulders of Mr. Kelley, who joined the newspaper soon after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1982, and whose visibility rose as the newspaper's did. Created by Mr. Neuharth as a forum for just-the-facts-journalism that would be conveyed through short articles and colorful graphics, USA Today eventually began seeking the recognition of the journalistic establishment.
To that end, the newspaper often showcased the work of Mr. Kelley. USA Today nominated him four times for the Pulitzer Prize before he became a finalist, on the fifth try, two years ago, in the category of beat reporting.
As he traveled the world for more than a decade, Mr. Kelley emerged as a character in his own articles, part James Bond and part Zelig, sometimes writing passages in the first person. He reported watching Kosovo Liberation Army fighters engage in a gunbattle with Serb troops and tagged along with a group of 13 Jewish settlers on the West Bank who, he said, shot at a Palestinian taxi.
David Mazzarella, who was the editor of USA Today from 1995 to 1999, said that as the director of the world reporting tour in 1988, he had seen firsthand what was perhaps Mr. Kelley's greatest gift as a reporter - the empathy and warmth he conveyed to his sources of information. For example, as Mr. Neuharth and Mr. Kelley, along with several others, concluded their interview with a Latin American leader, he turned to Mr. Kelley and hugged him, Mr. Mazzarella recalled last week.
"There is no question he has a manner about him that gets people to say things to him they might not say to other reporters,'' said Mr. Mazzarella, now the editorial director of Stars and Stripes. "He has a little-boy quality. He's not brash. If you're a guy or girl, he becomes your brother. If you're an older person, he becomes a son.''
Mr. Mazzarella said that occasionally one of Mr. Kelley's articles, like those of other reporters, would be sent back for more interviews, or killed outright, if they relied on the sort of unidentified intelligence sources that were frowned on at Gannett. But he added, "I don't recall that anyone came to us, to the editors, saying that a specific story he wrote was plagiarized, fabricated, invented or whatever.''
"If that had happened,'' he said, "I think we'd do the same thing we're doing now.''
One USA Today reporter, who insisted on anonymity, said he knew of at least 10 staff members who over the years had expressed concern to midlevel editors about Mr. Kelley's accounts - concerns that were generally dismissed as rooted in jealousy. A USA Today spokesman, Steven Anderson, said yesterday that he had no comment on the assertion.
Still, Mr. Kelley was among a small group of reporters allowed some leeway that was not usually given to others. In August 1995, for example, Mr. Kelley informed his editors from Croatia that he had stumbled upon a diary that a Serbian girl had apparently left behind in haste as her family fled an onslaught by Croatian troops. Mr. Kelley described the diary as written in the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets, and "full of green and black drawings of Serbian soldiers'' illustrating "dozens of poems, songs and stories about the Serbian effort.''
One passage, as described by Mr. Kelley, read: "I am going to hang little Croats on little poles. I am a Serbian child from my head to my toes.''
Though Mr. Kelley had the diary, his editors had pressed him, before printing his article, to try to locate the girl who was its apparent author, in part so her full name could be used to bolster the article's credibility. When he wrote to his editors from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, that his efforts, enlisting the help of United Nations workers, had been unsuccessful, the newspaper published the article on its front page, using only the girl's first name, Ivana.
In an interview last week, Johanna Neumann, then the foreign editor of USA Today and now at The Los Angeles Times, said she signed off on the arrangement in part because of her trust in Mr. Kelley. That trust, she said, was rooted to some extent in his openness with his colleagues about being an evangelical Christian.
"He was this very earnest, moralistic Christian reporter,'' she said. "It made people trust him in ways they didn't trust other reporters. If he was reporting he had the diary of a Serbian girl, and no one else had it, you tended to say: 'He just has a way with people. People just respond to him.' ''
Four years later, in July 1999, in a 398-word front-page article from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, he wrote of a loose-leaf notebook containing the order to "cleanse'' a village, which he described as "the strongest and most direct evidence linking the government of President Slobodan Milosevic to 'ethnic cleansing' in Kosovo.'' The article cited no sources by name.
It was in response to his editors' insistence last fall that he substantiate that article, and his inability to do so, that Mr. Kelley directed his editors to the woman who had portrayed herself to them falsely as its translator.
In a column published on USA Today's op-ed page on Friday, Mr. Neuharth, who did not respond to phone messages seeking comment, said, "I told you so.''
"For more than 20 years,'' he wrote, "I've preached that anonymous sources are the root of evil in journalism.'' Though he described Mr. Kelley as a "USA Today star reporter,'' Mr. Neuharth did not mention that he knew him or had written two books with him.