USA Today’s Con Artist

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Arguably, the most sensational scandal of last year was that involving the fake-reporter Jayson Blair whose deceptions embarrassed the New York Times, forced the resignations of its top two editors—and led some to raise questions about whether African-American reporters in general, not just Blair, were being, as some put it, "coddled."

By contrast, the deceptions of Jack Kelley, erstwhile "star"reporter of USA Today, which have been bluntly described in March and this month in articles by the newspaper itself and in a scathing report the newspaper commissioned, seems to have barely drawn the notice, even though three of the paper's top editors have resigned as a result.

Why the difference?

Certainly, one reason might be that the public and the media are consumed these days with the burgeoning crisis in Iraq and the flaring of the threat of terrorism across the face of Europe.

But, just as certainly, one can account for much of the difference by pointing to the obvious.

Jayson Blair is black. Jack Kelley is white.

Why else is it that, while the deceptions of Blair, a rookie in the news business, provoked reams of copy both in the news pages and on editorial and op-ed columns, the response to the Jack Kelley case can only be described as tepid—and certainly one in which the influence of "racial coddling"has not been considered at all?

In fact, the deceptions of Jack Kelley, a star at USA Today for 21 years, were far more longstanding and far more egregious. As a foreign correspondent covering some of the most important stories of our time, from Peru to Cuba to Somalia to the Balkans to Afghanistan (where in 2001 he wrote he visited with Osama bin Laden), he practiced them on a global scale.

In a report early this month, three prominent veteran newspaper editors stated that Kelley, who resigned from the paper in January, had gotten away "with years of fraudulent reporting"at the paper "despite numerous, well-grounded warnings that he was fabricating stories, exaggerating facts and plagiarizing other publications."

In detailed articles in recent weeks, USA Today itself said that its own investigation of more than 1,400 stories Kelley had written during his career at the paper had documented that he made up parts of at least twenty stories, plagiarized at least one hundred passages from other publications, and engaged in a web of other deceptions in order to cover his tracks.

In other words, in its duration and scope, Jack Kelley's deception of the paper that gave him a break and of the reading public that trusted that paper is astonishing.

Astonishing, that is, until one considers—as this column did last year in discussing what drove Jayson Blair, who also displayed considerable journalistic ability, to do such egregious wrong—the personality of the con artist with respectable credentials.

As we wrote then, con artists are often unquestionably talented, and could succeed the legitimate way, if they were to put their minds to it.

But their psychological "twist,"or defect is to do it the unethical way, for the thrill of conning others, and, for some, to nourish a powerful self-destructive compulsion. Some con artists can discipline that impulse enough to keep working their high-wire act for years. From the Times' reporting of his behavior, Blair was not well disciplined at all.
But Jack Kelley was.

Ironically, it was apparently the Blair Scandal which led to Kelley's downfall, too, for in the aftermath of the former, an anonymous complaint led USA Today to begin to unravel Kelley's own long pattern of deceit.
Also ironically, as with the Times' painstaking reconstruction of Blair's falsehoods, the USA Today's effort to bring Jack Kelley's dishonesty to light offers a gripping example of journalism at its best.

The Jack Kelley case also illuminates—again, for those who know the history of fakery in journalism—that, here as with Jayson Blair, it wasn't "race"that enabled him to get away with it for a time as much as it was trust: the trust that media organizations have to place in reporters, who are, after all, their eyes and ears on the streets of the world.

Both the New York Times and now USA Today say they will change some of the newsroom practices which created a climate in which such deception could flourish and will be more vigilant in reviewing reporters' copy in the first place.

That's all to their benefit, and ours.

Now, I'd like to see those columnists and other observers who last year were so quick to blame "racial coddling"for the Jayson Blair scandal revisit the issue of race and the American media—this time without their racial blinders on.

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