Jack Kelley's Christian journalist friends in Washington, D.C., are confronting the discredited star reporter formerly with USA Today in hopes of getting him to acknowledge publicly that he cannot vouch for the reliability of his reporting.
Several journalists contacted by Christianity Today say that Kelley, 43, seems to confuse what was fabricated and what was true in his reporting and they suggested to him that he seek professional counseling.
Journalist David Aikman, a close friend of Kelley's, told CT, Â "Kelley is shocked by USA Today's exposé and [he] should take time off to piece together his life." However, Aikman himself declined to characterize Kelley's reporting as fraudulent. Kelley would not speak to CT on the record. Kelley's Christian colleagues have responded personally to him concerning the preliminary report on Kelley's reporting that USA Today released a week ago. Their dilemma is how to support Kelley without losing their commitment to the truth.
Widespread deception alleged
Earlier this year, USA Today created a special investigative team to examine Kelley's stories since 1993. In their initial report, they found that Kelley had fabrications in at least eight major stories, plagiarized almost two dozen quotes or other materials from competing publications, and prepared scripts for several individuals posing as "sources" to mislead the investigators.
According to USA Today, Kelley during a discussion session at a convention of the Evangelical Press Association concocted a story about how he had taken a photo for his story of a young woman who had drowned at sea while fleeing Cuba. The account was different from other stories that he told about the origins of the picture, and in fact, the newspaper says that the woman never was a refugee on a boat that sank, but she is alive and well in the United States as a legal immigrant. A USA Today reporter called the story "a lie from start to finish." But Kelley told the paper, "I saw it with my own eyes. Honest to God."
The paper also alleged that Kelley lied in his speeches, notably to the annual meeting at the Evangelical Press Association in 2000. For years, leading evangelicals hailed Kelley as a role model to student journalists.
A team of five reporters, an editor, and a prestigious panel of veteran journalists reviewed about 720 stories written by Kelley from 1993 through 2003. They re-interviewed sources, compared travel vouchers with Kelley's claims of the location of his stories, and searched his computer. The editors spent more than 20 hours with Kelley.
Kelley told friends up to the moment of the paper's announcement that he thought he was convincing the editors of his innocence. Wesley Pippert, head of the prestigious University of Missouri journalism program in Washington, says, "Jack was still holding out hope that he would be vindicated."
In fact, the high-powered panel, John Siegenthaler, Bill Kovach and Bill Hilliard, concluded that Kelley's conduct was "a sad and shameful betrayal of public trust." Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, told Editor and Publisher that Kelley's transgressions were a "crime."
Kelley given benefit of doubt
In the wake of Kelley's January resignation, Aikman stood by Kelley through the initial flurry of charges of fraudulent reporting, calling USA Today's methods "like an old-fashioned witch-hunt." In a commentary for the Salem radio network, Aikman complained of USA Today's "lynch mob," and suggested that the paper was attacking him because of Kelley's outspoken religious beliefs.
Aikman's confidence dates back to his observations of Kelley's reporting in Moscow. While Time magazine's bureau chief, Aikman had seen Kelley in action. He told the American Journalism Review that Kelley got "a remarkable handhold on some very difficult reporting" in Moscow even though he didn't speak Russian.
Aikman is also founder and leader of an international association of Christian journalists, called Gegrapha. He told CT that it was the nature of the group to uphold high reporting ethics, while also reaching out to those who fall short. "He should take the rap if the charges are true, but he is still a brother. When Chuck Colson was in prison, he wasn't abandoned by his friends."
Pippert echoes Aikman's comments, "For the record, Jack is my friend no matter what. He is a broken man. But I too have known Kelley as the most gentle and decent person in the business."
After talking with Kelley this week, Aikman still says that he does not regret supporting the errant reporter. "Not a bit of regret," he says, though he doesn't generally dispute the USA Today revelations. "All of Jack's Christian journalist friends are deeply grieved by what happened," but a group of them are willing to work with Kelley to set his life on the right course. Kelley also has the strong support of his wife Jacki who remains executive vice president of USA Today and says she has no plans to resign.
Aikman was not the only Christian journalist who put his reputation on the line to reach out to Kelley. The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas surprised many people when he walked into this year's National Prayer Breakfast with Kelley, who had quit USA Today a few weeks earlier.
Why would Thomas risk his sterling reputation as Washington's political moralist on a man one reporter has called "the liar of liars?" And does Thomas now regret what he did? In January, when the scandal broke into the public, Thomas observed, "The blood is in the water, and everybody is gun shy." For Thomas, that was the time to step into the roiling controversy to help a drowning friend. "For any believer, redemption is the ultimate goal."
But USA Today's expose of Kelley's misconduct also meant that Kelley had misled Thomas and other Christian journalists, just as he had the Evangelical Press Association, student journalism classes, and his own pastor.
When Thomas first called Kelley after the scandal broke, he knew that there might be more bad news coming. At the time, Thomas told CT, "I have a nagging feeling that there is more to this than we know." Although Thomas won't say what he discussed with Kelley this week, he says that reporters of great integrity convincingly made the charges against Kelley. "I do not think that the evidence is plausibly deniable," he concluded.
Thomas concluded that there were only three possibilities, a conclusion that many other Christian journalists share:
"Either all these guys are lying, which is not credible. Or that Jack was not telling the truth or that he is delusional. I don't see any other alternative."
Unbearable seven months
At the time Kelley resigned in January, he had been the subject for months of extremely intensive inquiry from his editors. Prior to that day, Jack Kelley, a deeply devout Christian, seemed to rise above his difficulties. If a young reporter needed some hard-to-get phone numbers, Kelley was the first one to open up his Rolodex. If you needed to know how to negotiate the dark alleys and corrupt lords of the earth, Kelley was your man.
But some journalists thought his tight wire act over the cesspools of the world was too good to be true. A few questioned that he couldn't possibly know what he found out or interview who he said he had.
Yet, Kelley successfully put off his detractors, discounted their criticisms as envy and all seemed to be going his way. While doubt simmered, there never was a clear cut case of fraud that boiled the pot of criticism over into serious accusation.
Indeed, Kelley said that he believed that God was opening doors and protecting him. He further told Christian Reader (now named Today's Christian) magazine that "Many times God has spared me."
The management of USA Today made him their Employee of the Year in 2002 and the Pulitzer Prize Committee made him one of their finalists for best international reporting in 2001. (Kelley also spoke at a 1997 journalism conference co-sponsored by Christianity Today.) His editors gave him free rein and his publisher at one point flew Kelley on an around-the-world reporting trip in the company's jet. Critics say that editorial indulgence and the cult of celebrity cut Kelley off from accountability.
Gordon Pennington, managing director of the media consulting firm Burning Media Group, observes that the plane incident says it all. "That Kelley took the corporate jet around the world for one of his assignments is a huge metaphor for what this about. One of the unexpected things of the culture of celebrity is the extent those that report it become entranced and caught by it themselves."
To be truthful, Kelley seemed to like the adoration and the excitement of the dangerous, high-profile story. He is also an emotional reporter. His reports tell of a man who is empathetically alive to the emotions of others. He had a gift of being your best friend after a short time. His reporting placed you in the emotional center of the scene. He was fueled by empathy—giving it and receiving it. However, as an empathizer, Kelley was susceptible to mixing up emotion and fact.
Kelley's downfall began in May 2003 when the editorial leadership at USA Today changed. The editor who supported Kelley retired. In June, an anonymous letter came to Executive Editor Brian Gallagher alleging that Jack Kelley was another Jayson Blair, a young reporter for the New York Times who plagiarized and made up countless stories. USA Today circulated a memo asking staff to tell the editors if they had concerns about USA Today stories that might be like Blair's deceits.
The senior editors at USA Today launched an investigation, which at first seemed friendly but quickly turned frosty. Kelley's emotional center shrank—the long dark night of his soul had begun. Casual acquaintances didn't notice but Kelley was also in a spiritual decline. Charles Schmitt of Silver Spring, Maryland, is Kelley's pastor and says he didn't notice until Kelley slowly started talking to him about it. "He had a lack of inner resources" to deal with the controversies.
USA Today decided to focus on some of Kelley's most sensational stories. In one story from 2001 Kelley reported narrowly escaping being blown up outside the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem by a terrorist bomber who passed right by him. Some reporters snorted in disbelief at another tale of Kelley's "miraculous escapes" that the journalist sometimes attributes to God's intervention. Further, Kelley's claim that he had actually brushed by the terrorist seemed too good to be true.
But just hours after the blast, Kelley had called friends to tell the story. CT interviewed several people who at the time had spoken with Kelley, and they say Kelley's oral recitation was completely consistent with the story that was published the next day.
Wes Pippert says Kelley called him after midnight Jerusalem time to say he would have to break an appointment because of the story. "It was very matter of fact, with no reflections on his near death. He told me the story, and it was exactly the way he reported it." USA Today editors also say that they heard a similar story from another editor but now have concluded that Kelley fabricated major elements of his story, particularly those about his own presence at the scene.
Indeed, over the years some friends wondered if Kelley wasn't over-dramatizing and tailoring his facts to fit the audience. Jill Rosen in the American Journalism Review reports a similar incident of an unexpected call from Kelley to a friend, reporter Matthew Fisher. Kelley told the story of running through the streets of Moscow from Chechen hit men. Kelley asked Fisher to call his editor for help in getting into the U.S. Embassy.
Later, Kelley retold that same story as an example of God's miraculous intervention. He told Today's Christian that he got a vision of a building number 925 in which he would receive safe haven. He claimed a vivid memory of the details of the apartment. But was his survival due to safe haven in the embassy or God that saved Kelley? That seemed to depend on who Kelley was talking to.
Last year was both joyous and traumatic for Kelley. Outside, Kelley seemed happy seeing his child dedicated at Immanuel's Church, an independent congregation outside Washington. However, none of Kelley's spiritual counselors knew about the interior agony of his situation. Schmitt says that Kelley "began to tell me that the Lord was not speaking to him."
But Kelley's darkest hours were yet to come. Last fall, the focus of the editors had narrowed to one story and one line in the story: "A Yugoslav army 3-ring notebook, found by investigators, July 2 , near an abandoned military headquarters in Kosovo, contains a direct order to a lieutenant to 'cleanse' the village of Cusk near the western Kosovo city of Pec. … The black vinyl notebook contains the names of dozens of Serbs believed to be soldiers possibly involved in atrocities."
USA Today editor Karen Jurgensen says that one of the paper's reporters brought to editors' attention that "shortly after the [Yugoslavia] article was published, an official from the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague had raised doubts about the existence of a notebook at the heart of the story." Kelley's editors asked for proof of the notebook's existence or at least someone who had seen it.
It was a small story, only 398 words, but it ran on the front page of USA Today. The black notebook was small too. But its evidence seemed to pack a wallop, proving that orders of genocide were given.
The paper's editors disbelieved that there was any interview or any black notebook. The unnamed source, Natasa Kandic, a human rights activist, told Kelley and another USA Today reporter that she didn't remember any interview with Kelley.
Kelley suggested that maybe another translator was there and could corroborate his story. Yet, Kelley couldn't find her. But then, Kelley asked a Russian woman to pose as the missing translator Danielja Jacamovich.
By the end of October, the editors believed that Kelley had lied to them about the translator and the story. The paper hired a private investigator to do further inquiry. Using voice analysis, they discovered that a Russian woman who Kelley had used as a translator previously had provided false corroboration of the article.
Following Thanksgiving, legal counsel laid out the journalist's translator deception to Kelley's lawyer. Kelley called his pastor and confessed. In early December, there were more communications. "About this same time Kelley admitted his actions in a conversation he initiated with USA Today Publisher Craig Moon," the paper says.
"Right after it happened," Kelley told CT in a conversation earlier this year, "I called my wife, I called my Mom, I called my pastor and then I called my lawyer. I confessed to everybody." Pastor Schmitt says Jack called him "for sure by the end of November, maybe before. He was up front and clearly repentant." But Schmitt says Kelley "was sinking in grief," too.
Kelley's trial had really only begun. After the news broke that he had turned in his resignation, four television trucks camped in front of his house. Coming back from his usual morning run to Starbucks, Kelley was shocked.
Kelley's wife decided to call his pastors for help. Jacki Kelley knew that her husband was at a crucial moment spiritually. So on a Sunday in January, Kelley sat down with his pastors and wife and let it all out. He talked about "feeling hunted" and being in lonely desolation. Then, at this darkest moment Kelley seemed to feel God's forgiveness and direction like he hadn't before. "Jack seemed to regain a trust in a fresh sense of the Lord's presence," says Schmitt.
But Kelley was still trying to have it both ways, confession privately but denial in public. And his confession was minimal, only on what he had been caught on.
Kelley's denials no longer were making sense to his Christian journalist friends. They started confronting him. He turned to them for help and now he needed to turn to them for forgiveness. Schmitt encouraged Kelley and his wife to read a Psalm every morning along with the devotional book, Streams in the Desert. "We are encouraging Jack to get into Scripture and to communicate with God."
Tony Carnes is senior news writer for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's Weblog has included a few comments on the Jack Kelley story, including:
Jack Kelley Admits 'Poor Judgment' in USA Today Probe (Jan. 12, 2004)
Star Christian Reporter Quits USA Today After Investigation (Jan. 09, 2004)
USA Todayposted a statement about the reporter regarding the paper's investigation.
Other USA Today articles on Kelley include:
USA Today reporter resigns after deception | USA Today foreign correspondent Jack Kelley was forced to resign last week after he repeatedly misled editors during an internal investigation into stories he wrote, the newspaper's top editors said Monday. (USA Today, Jan. 13, 2004)
Reporter comments on departure | Reporter Jack Kelley issued the following statement in response to reporters' inquiries: (USA Today, Jan. 13, 2004)
Similar wording is found in 'Post,' USA Today stories | A comparison of a July 9, 1998, Washington Post story from Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan, and one published by USA Today from the same town on Sept. 2, 1998, show striking similarities, the newspaper learned Tuesday. (USA Today, Jan. 14, 2004)
Passages from the two stories | Excerpts of a Washington Post story by Kevin Sullivan published on July 9, 1998, and a USA Today story by Jack Kelley published on Sept. 2 of that year. (USA Today, Jan. 14, 2004)
USA Today set to conduct independent probe | USA Today, in the media spotlight since foreign correspondent Jack Kelley resigned last week after admitting deceiving editors who had been investigating his reporting, said Thursday that it will conduct an independent probe of all Kelley's work. (USA Today, Jan. 16, 2004)
Ex-USA Today reporter faked major stories | Seven weeks into an examination of former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley's work, a team of journalists has found strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work. (USA Today, March 18, 2004)
Other inconsistencies in Kelley's stories | Jack Kelley gave the newspaper names of people he said would authenticate his stories or resolve inconsistencies. Some of those people contradicted him. (USA Today, March 19, 2004)
Unbelievable timing, incredible account | Perhaps the most riveting story Jack Kelley wrote for USA Today involved a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Aug. 9, 2001 — a bombing Kelley says he witnessed. (USA Today, March 19, 2004)
Woman who died in Cuba story alive in USA | When USA Today foreign correspondent Jack Kelley returned from Cuba in February 2000, he brought home an incredible tale — and a photo he took to support it. (USA Today, March 19, 2004)
Mileage, expenses, facts don't add up | A USA Today investigation of the story, including interviews with the Pakistani man Kelley said enabled him to reach Ghulam Khan, show that Kelley could not have reached the tiny hamlet along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. (USA Today, March 19, 2004)
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