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Panel Pans USA Today Culture

A woman and a boy cover their faces as they walk through a smoke from burning trash at a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
A panel of leading journalists determined that lax editing standards, poor newsroom oversight and a culture of fear allowed a former star reporter at USA Today to get away with fraudulent reporting for more than a decade, despite serious concerns being raised about his work.

The scandal provoked by Jack Kelley's extensive misdeeds has struck a devastating blow to USA Today, the largest circulation newspaper in the country, and paralleled a debacle last year at The New York Times involving former reporter Jayson Blair. Karen Jurgensen, 55, USA Today's editor since 1999, stepped down abruptly on Tuesday in the wake of the scandal.

The panel found that Kelley faked parts of at least 20 stories and plagiarized at least a hundred passages from other publications. In an initial report last month, the panel found that Kelley had made up parts of at least eight stories.

Led by three distinguished editors, the panel delivered its final report to Publisher Craig Moon last week. The paper disclosed the panel's findings in a full page of articles in its Thursday editions, and a good portion of the report on its Web site.

The paper also published a statement from Kelley in which he apologized and admitted "a number of serious mistakes."

The panel placed much of the blame for Kelley's wrongdoing on USA Today's editors who, they say, should have looked into concerns about Kelley's work long ago. The newspaper's policies as well as routine editing procedures "should have raised dark shadows of doubt about Kelley's work, had his editors been vigilant and diligent. They were not," the panel said.

Moon said in an interview that he anticipated making other personnel changes, but he declined to be more specific. He said he would consider several recommendations made by the panel, including matters of personnel, organization and newsroom policies, once a new editor was in place. He also said he expected to keep Kelley's wife, Jacki, in her current position as the newspaper's top advertising executive.

"For an unfortunate situation, I think we will turn this into something very positive for both our readers and our employees," Moon said.

As for addressing the panel's concerns about a fearful culture in the newsroom, Moon said: "I think new leadership fixes that."

Unlike Blair, who was a young reporter trying to make a name for himself, Kelley was a well-established star at USA Today. His work was held up to others as an example, he was given plum foreign assignments and asked to speak to various groups on behalf of the newspaper. He also co-wrote two books with USA Today's founder, Al Neuharth.

Kelley, 43, resigned in January after admitting to trying to deceive a team of editors examining the veracity of his work. A subsequent review by the outside experts found that Kelley had engaged in extensive fakery and plagiarism dating to 1991.

Until now Kelley had stood by his work, admitting only to attempting to deceive the initial investigation. But in a statement issued to the paper through his lawyers, Kelley acknowledged making "a number of serious mistakes that violate the values that are most important to me as a person and as a journalist."

"I recognize that I cannot make amends for the harm I have caused to my family, friends and colleagues. Nor can I make it up to readers who depend upon good journalism to understand a chaotic and confusing world. I can only offer my sincere apology to those I have let down," Kelley said.

A lawyer for Kelley, Lisa J. Banks, declined to make any further comment.

In their 28-page report, the outside panel — John Seigenthaler, Bill Kovach and Bill Hilliard — sharply criticized USA Today's management. Among their conclusions were that the newspaper failed to act on early warnings of problems with Kelley's work.

The three editors spent more than 10 weeks interviewing current and former USA Today staffers in their investigation, which was also aided by several reporters at the paper.

They also found that an earlier investigation into Kelley's work, conducted by USA Today editors last year, failed to turn up most of Kelley's misdeeds because the investigators "set out to prove that he had been guilty of nothing."

The panel also found that a "virus" of fear had infected some staffers in the paper's news section, inhibiting them from complaining about Kelley. They found that some staffers were scolded when they expressed concerns about Kelley, who was considered a "Golden Boy" with close ties to the paper's top managers.

The report found that the newspaper's structure and top-down management tended to "silence" the editorial staff, discourage give-and-take among reporters and editors and "separate responsibility from accountability."

Lines of communications running vertically and horizontally among the newspaper's divisions were "palpably defective," the review found, adding that "communications deficiencies promote turf problems among departments.

They also found that Kelley was able to "routinely abuse" rules governing anonymous sources, exploiting the confidence his editors had in him.

Kelley also billed the paper for thousands of dollars in cash that was purportedly paid to translators or drivers who said they never received the money. Accountants for the newspaper plan to investigate.

Seigenthaler, the head of the panel, is a former editor and publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville and the founding editorial director of USA Today. Kovach is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and former chief of the Washington bureau for The New York Times. Hilliard is a former editor of The Oregonian in Portland.