The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Kelley: It's the editing, stupid!

There's loads around on USA Today's errant erstwhile Knight Errant, Jack Kelley.

But a piece in the rag itself (March 22) at least makes a start on laying blame where it most lies: with the paper's editorial function. (If that's not too strong a word.)

Because Kelley, star though he was, could not have got a comma of his printed without the approval of editors. Who patently were, at the very least, serially negligent, if not complicit in Kelley's frauds. Perhaps some of them told him to let her rip. So far as I'm aware, we don't know yet, and probably never will know, the degree of responsibility of particular editors for the defective Kelley product.

Suggestions that
there's evidence that staffers complained about Kelley's reporting and that ''these messages weren't heard'' by higher-ups
are all too plausible.

Bob Steele of Poynter says
In Kelley's case, it's not only an indictment of this one person, but of a system of quality control.

Quality control. There's a concept to conjure with!

And Stanford's Ted Glasser
suggests more random fact-checking, in which subjects are asked about the accuracy of the story. ''Like random drug testing, it would send a clear message to staffers that the newsroom will hold them accountable for their mistakes,'' Glasser says. (USA TODAY currently does some random fact-checking and closely tracks complaints and requests for corrections.)

Some random fact-checking.
''USA TODAY devoted enormous resources to its investigation,'' Glasser says. ''Why couldn't some of these resources be devoted to creating a better system of detection?''

What he said...


Howard Kurtz (no stranger to conflict of interest himself, of course) has a rather spicier piece (March 20) which, for those hoping for reform, gives naught for our comfort. USAT Editor Karen Jurgensen he quotes thus:
We're all devastated by Jack's betrayal of the public trust and our trust. It's unfair to the people involved in the stories, unfair to readers and unfair to all the honest journalists who worked for years to build USA Today. We're committed to making sure this never happens again and learning from this awful experience.

And where were the editors of the rag all this time? They were only playing leapfrog no doubt.

And chairman of the investigating committee,
USA Today founding editorial director John Seigenthaler
does not entirely seem to have grasped the problem:
I'm not sure we know enough about how the natural checks failed and how the gatekeepers missed it, particularly in light of some complaints that had come in.

One might have thought that that was the most important thing to look at.

Kurtz says Seigenthaler
...said these complaints, from both inside and outside the paper, began in the late 1990s, but "for some reason they were never answered," even though some "went up the line" to top management.

You get the feeling he wouldn't be overly distressed if the reason was never elucidated.

Peter Prichard, the paper's editor from 1988 to 1994
- an erstwhile Kelley supporter (but, then, which USAT editor wasn't?) - says
You wonder to what degree these stories were checked.
Ain't that the truth!
Was he encouraged by his supervisors at the time? Did that play a role? I know he had a tremendous yearning to please people.

Not half as great a yearning as his editors had to please him, from what one can see.

And, at a meeting between the committee and the newsroom, veteran USAT journo
Andrea Stone, participants say, told the assembled editors that she was "very angry," that she and others had warned about Kelley's reporting for years, only to be told that Kelley was a "star" and other correspondents should emulate him.

There was talk of a culture of fear at the rag.

Now a strong element of Schadenfreude from the boys at WaPo is to be expected. But the signs of rank complacency of USAT editors seem thick on the ground.

Capri emissarii non sunt multiplicandi - as William of Ockham never quite said.


A Salon piece illustrates Kelley's contribution to Middle East reporting.

He told the suckers what they wanted to believe. Is that such a bad thing? Isn't a market there to satisfy customer demand?



E&P has a piece from J-professor John Hanchette on the USAT editors' responsibility over the Kelley affair.

He refers to a piece on a bombing in Jerusalem in which Kelley had said
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."

There's more gilt than gingerbread in that story [1]!

Hanchette goes on:
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.

Credit where credit's due.

He also assaults the forked tongue of USAT owners Gannett on the use of anonymous sources. (If there is a publisher's tongue which is not forked on that subject, I should like to know whose!)

  1. Reminiscent of Pooh-Bah's embroidery in The Mikado (libretto):
    Now though you'd have said that head was dead
    (For its owner dead was he),
    It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred,
    And bowed three times to me!
    It was none of your impudent off-hand nods,
    But as humble as could be;
    For it clearly knew
    The deference due
    To a man of pedigree!
    No sign of any sluggishness in the market for
    corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.


A couple of interesting-looking pieces from the American Journalism Review - one (Feb/Mar) on Jack Kelley, and another (Apr/May) on USAT generally.

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