In 2004, it was uncovered that Jack Kelley, one of USA Today
's most respected reporters, a veteran of 18 years and a five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, had been fabricating major news stories at least since 1991. Many of these stories wound up on the front page of the paper. Many of the eyewitnesses, unnamed sources, and victims in some of his most high-profile stories were not only fictional but several seemed to serve mostly to reinforce divisive ethnic stereotyping.
These fictional portraits of non-existent news sources included a vindictive bloodthirsty Israeli vigilante at the scene of a suicide-bombing, an equally bloodthirsty teenaged Pakistani terrorist with his sites on Chicago's Sears Tower, and a tragic Cuban refugee who had drowned when her boat capsized in a failed attempt to reach America.
In the past ten years, in particular, some of his stories had gained a wide range of unusual supporters including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a notorious Holocaust-denial organization, an Arab Anti-Defamation group, and a pro-Israel lobbyist group.
USA Today's secret investigation
It was USA Today
staff members who had uncovered Jack Kelley's story fabrications. Their suspicions were first triggered by Kelley's 1999 story about witnessing the discovery of secret Serbian documents verifying acts of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. These staff members launched a secret investigation to verify the facts in Kelley's story. They tried to locate the "ethnic cleansing" documents to no avail. They did, however, manage to track down Kelley's so-called 'translator' in Kosovo, and she couldn't verify the existence of the documents. She said that her translation of the documents was transcribed only from Kelley's telling of the tale.
It was Jack Kelley's 2000 drowned Cuban refugee story that accelerated the investigation. His story included a snapshot of the ill-fated refugee from happier times in Cuba. A USA Today
reporter went to Cuba and discovered that the 'drowned' woman was a Cuban hotel employee. She was alive and well, and had never attempted to escape to America by boat.
When Kelley became aware that he was being investigated, he hired at least three people to deceive USA Today
's team of fact-checkers. Upon examining his company-owned laptop, it was discovered that he had created scripts for these so-called overseas story sources.
USA Today's full investigation
In 2004, USA Today
conducted a full-blown investigation with a team of reporters led by three respected journalists currently unaffiliated with the newspaper. The lead investigator was John Seigenthaler, USA Today
's founding editorial director.
Seven weeks after the full investigation was launched, the investigation team concluded that as many as 150 news reports had contained fabricated elements including eyewitness accounts, quotes from unnamed sources, and human interest stories.
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