20 Hours With a Fraud 

John Seigenthaler talks about investigating USA Today reporter Jack Kelley

John Seigenthaler talks about investigating USA Today reporter Jack Kelley

Former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, fresh off chairing the high profile panel that investigated fired USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, says that he's still perplexed by what drove a talented journalist to fabricate stories, plagiarize and lie in speeches he gave for the newspaper.

"I wish at times I had a background in psychology," he says. "He's very believable, very charming, very accommodating. He sounded to us like he believed every word he said."

The Jayson Blair of 2004, Kelley actually manufactured a bolder, more ambitious portfolio of deceit than the ex-New York Times dissembler. While Blair's fabrications were mainly to cover his hide, Kelley's embellishments were spectacular works of fiction. In eight stories, he was found to have fabricated substantial portions, including, for instance, an account of six Cuban refugees whom he reported died in a violent storm when they were escaping Cuba by sea for the United States. The paper's investigation concluded the story "was a lie from start to finish."

In at least 10 cases, Kelley wrote that he saw someone die. The most questionable of these was a supposed eyewitness account about the bombing of a pizzeria in Jerusalem. In his story, Kelley recounted what happened to three men who happened to be eating pizza at the time. "When they hit the ground their heads separated from their bodies and rolled down the street."

As it turns out, Kelley was 90 feet away with his back toward the pizzeria. None of the adult victims were decapitated. In an initial draft of the story that should have struck every alarm bell in the newsroom, Kelley wrote that as the heads of the victims rolled down the street, their eyes were blinking.

Along with veteran journalists Bill Hilliard and Bill Kovach, Seigenthaler spent more than 20 hours interviewing Kelley about his stories and how USA Today's newsroom might have enabled his works of fiction to accrue. Kelley maintained his innocence the entire time, even as a team of USA Today reporters uncovered nearly irrefutable evidence that major portions of his stories included outright lies. "He's not like anybody I've ever met in my life," says Seigenthaler. "Someone said that Hilliard, Kovach and I had the combined ages of Methuselah. Well, I can tell you that neither Kovach nor Hilliard met anyone like him either."

Retired in 1991 as publisher of The Tennessean and listed today as "chairman emeritus" on the newspaper's masthead, Seigenthaler is reclaiming his role as Nashville's most influential journalist. If his involvement with the city's daily has almost completely ended, his foray's onto journalism's national stage have not. Meanwhile, the recent release of a Seigenthaler-authored book—a biography of former president James K. Polk—has ushered in a round of book signings. Seigenthaler hasn't exactly retired to Palm Beach.

As for the Kelley matter, Seigenthaler said that while the reporter occasionally looked uncomfortable, he rarely showed signs of distress despite the evidence that was mounting against him. "You spend that much time with someone and then ask them very tough, difficult and embarrassing questions and you never had the feeling that you made an impression on him," Seigenthaler says. "There were moments where he expressed unease, but just glimpses of it."

With Kelley now confined to the expanding annals of disgraced journalists, the larger question is how he could have manufactured such a remarkable career of deceit—without any of his editors catching on. Seigenthaler says that Kelley's winning personality—the same trait that enabled Blair—certainly helped him snow the folks on top. But that's hardly an excuse. Though his editors deleted Kelley's mention of the blinking eyes on the decapitated head, the item's sheer ludicrousness should have raised questions about his entire account, if not his state of mind. Of course, people did doubt Kelley's veracity—just not the right people.

"His critics were both inside and outside the newspaper," Seigenthaler says. "They raised their voices, but unfortunately the people who should have been listening weren't."

Seigenthaler's panel is expected to release a report later this week explaining how Kelley's fabrications made their way into the paper. He still seems stunned that something like this could have ever happened. "I don't want to read anyone's mind, but he was their most visible reporter and he made many appearances on national television and made speeches across the country," says Seigenthaler, searching for an explanation. "There are some good editors over there and the fact that he had some sort of star status would not have made them tone deaf. It's just very puzzling."

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