You think you’re unshockable. Janet Cooke happened at the beginning of my career, and over the years I’ve seen my share of less-celebrated plagiarists and fabulists go slinking out the newsroom door in disgrace. They had a lot in common, most often a personal life that was circling the drain. Substance abuse, domestic strife, borderline personality — you know the drill. You can find people like them in most offices, but you know what they say. A doctor buries his mistakes, a lawyer’s go to jail, but a newspaper reporter’s get read by thousands of people who aren’t as dumb or blind as his or her editors.
But I have to say, Jack Kelley of USA Today, the most recently disgraced, is a breed apart. Plagiarist, fabulist and egomaniac, caught dead to rights, he still refuses to admit he lied like a rug: Confronted Thursday with the newspaper’s findings, Kelley spent 2 1/2 hours again denying wrongdoing. ‘I feel like I’m being set up,’ he told them.
Set up for what? The team investigating his too-good-to-be-true stories found one after another either couldn’t be verified or could be actively disproved — the live woman who was supposed to be dead, to name but one.
I don’t read USA Today, except on rare occasions. And I don’t follow the inside-baseball stuff closely enough to know who Kelley was when his name first turned up. But as I read the excerpts from his stories, they set off every b.s. detector in the room, and I simply can’t believe they didn’t set off some at the higher levels of USA Today, too. He “watched a Pakistani student unfold a picture of the Sears Tower and say, ‘This one is mine,’ in 2001”? He witnessed, at a suicide bombing, “Three men, who had been eating pizza inside, were catapulted out of the chairs they had been sitting on. When they hit the ground their heads separated from their bodies and rolled down the street.” And no one said hmm? I’ve never seen a bombing, but I don’t think there’s anything about the human neck that makes the head more of a tear-away appendage than, say, an arm or leg. Three bodies dismember in precisely the same way and then the heads roll away so cinematically? And odd that he could somehow, with a blast so close, keep his eyes open and recording the sights so precisely, rather than doing what any other person would be doing — throwing his hands and arms up to protect himself. He even knew what they were eating! (True, it was a pizza restaurant, but maybe they were having the baked ziti. Just a thought.)
This guy tops Jayson Blair, if you ask me. Blair was at least running around town snorting coke and drinking himself blind like a true lying desperado. But Kelley, an evangelical Christian, was polishing his halo, telling an interviewer: (My editor) thinks that me being a Christian gives me a different perspective on things. I certainly hope so, because I pray which stories I shouldn’t take, and hopefully that helps. ‘ Prayer is a daily, daily, if not an hourly part of my job here. In my entire life, I cannot separate my faith from my profession. If I did, I wouldn’t be in this profession. I wouldn’t have had the success that I’ve had. I think it’s a gift, and I can tell when I’m in tune with the Lord. Circumstances just happen. Stories just fall into my lap. I kid you not. Stories just fall into my lap when I’m in tune with the Lord. That’s probably because the Lord knows I’m too dumb to go out and find them myself, because I never find them. It’s just unbelievable. You sit back each night, and I feel his pleasure when I report, and there’s no greater feeling.
This guy better pray to God to save his sorry lying ass, because something else just dropped in his lap, and it has a fuse.
UPDATE: A commentator just noted the vanishing-hitchhiker story from Jack’s speaking career. It’s too good not to link.