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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Friday, April 23, 2004

USA Today report: any more Kelleys?

When I discussed the departure of USAT editor, Karen Jurgensen, I mentioned (April 21) that publication of the report into the affair commissioned from John Seigenthaler was imminent.

An edited version was indeed published yesterday [1], and it's no less grim on a second reading. It identifies a number of systemic failures in the News department: the reporting structure, the system of performance reviews supposedly designed to weed out under-performers, but, it seems, more gauged to produce team players.

Kelley, the star used to hobnobbing with senior executives and often on TV, exploited a system that was ripe for the treatment. Those rules that existed to maintain quality control were flouted for his benefit. A large investment - increasing by the week - of the paper's credibility was made in Kelley, who became [my view] increasingly associated with the paper's brand.

The climate of fear found to have existed, and to continue to exist, in the News department of the paper as a result of its management style and structures served to quell the many suggestions, from inside the paper and out, that Kelley's work was questionable.

And - though this is not mentioned - the sunk costs of credibility must have weighed with USAT senior executives, who were by no means all in total ignorance of the complaints being made about Kelley. If he'd managed to get away with his phoney stories for so long, why should his next story be any more liable to be rumbled? The longer Kelley was the blue-eyed boy, the greater chumps the paper's management would appear if they exposed him as a faker.

How far did the information go up the food chain at USAT? The report mentions that
A former publisher, worrying that a Kelley story was flawed, took the time to have a conversation with a high-ranking Intelligence official who confirmed its accuracy. He never entertained any serious suspicions that Kelley was a fraud. The fact that Kelley had talent and had done some good work on some stories no doubt helped buttress the confidence top news executives wrongly placed in him.

But, elsewhere in the report, complaints are stymied by middle managers, as for instance, in one quote:
When I said I was going to tell a senior editor I didn't believe Jack, I was told: 'You don't want to go there.'

In any organisation, the priorities of senior management tend to get diffused throughout that organisation. Perhaps the USAT structures and culture were more than usually conducive;
One News editor, explaining to a colleague why a reporter's complaint was not reported up the line, said, "My job is to think just like [my boss] so he knows I'm never second-guessing him."

I think we're meant to connect the dots: the top guys had made Kelley their champion, and would take amiss anything that might compromise his status.

There is, needless to say, plenty of comment on the use of anonymous quotes. (And I wouldn't be the first to point out the irony that the report itself is stuffed with them!) Apparently,
In 1999 the newspaper division of the Gannett Company, parent of USA TODAY, adopted a code of ethics for its newspapers, including strict policy guidelines on the use of confidential sources. USA TODAY, even as complaints about Kelley's work were swirling among staff members, opted not to adopt the code or the guidelines.

Infer away...

Which leads one to ask what the executives at Gannett [2] were doing all this while? USAT is the group's flagship, and, I suspect [3], its financial contribution is considerable. Delegation is fine and dandy, but surely Gannett would have wanted to know of rumours of the kind floating around about so important an employee as Kelley? And, given the multifarious sources of those rumours, it would be surprising if none reached Gannett senior management from other places than within USAT. From journalists in other Gannett papers, for instance - where, perhaps, the culture and structure was more conducive to the free flow of such information.

Also, might there be other Jack Kelleys within USAT - less high profile, but equally prepared not to let the facts spoil a good story - which that climate of fear mentioned earlier might have helped protect?

In the coverage of the report [4] and the subsequent resignation of Managing Editor for news, Hal Ritter, the report is faulted for not stressing the shortage of staff at USAT. And a lack of cash for overseas reporting is mentioned as a contributory factor additional to those mentioned in the report.

Howard Kurtz enjoys a couple of thousand words of Schadenfreude at the nemesis of an outrageous counter-jumper, as, for instance,-
As USA Today gradually transformed itself from a bland "McPaper" known mainly for short stories and flashy graphics...
the nation's top-selling newspaper, which the panel says has increasingly tried to compete with the New York Times and The Washington Post

Give Howie his due, though: the piece is remarkable for the fact that all the quotes he supplies come with names attached!

  1. Split into ten pages! The report on just one page.

  2. The 2003 Annual Report (PDF), for reference.

  3. Said Annual Report does not show the contribution of USAT to Gannett's results, either revenues or net income - so far as I can see.

  4. Romenesko has loadsa links here and here.

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