Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner: How King Con Kelley Got Away with It

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner: How King Con Kelley Got Away with It

Article excerpt

Jack Kelley's legend begins in August, 1982, a month before the launch of USA Today. John J. Curley, the editor, is stretched out on his office floor, barely breathing. Kelley is tearing up Curley's clothes, applying CPR. Suddenly Curley opens his eyes, and surveys his wrecked shirt. "I'm sorry, Mr. Curley," Kelley says. "Here are your buttons."

That scene, described by Freedom Forum President Peter S. Prichard, in his 1987 book, The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today, was typical Kelley. The helpful hero.

Kelley was the clean-cut reincarnation of Richard Harding Davis,

the swashbuckling foreign correspondent of a century ago. And the most famous face of USA Today. It was why so many people had such a hard time believing the newspaper when it announced that some of Kelley's work from 1993 to 2003 was either fiction or stolen fact.

"He was a great reporter, he didn't have to make things up," said Prichard, who was USA Today's editor from 1988 to 1994. "He was the last person in the world you would expect to con you."

In fact, Kelly was a serial con. He fooled Prichard, all of the other editors at USA Today, the judges who handed out the National Headliner and Pulitzer Prize awards, television commentators, and the media critics who watchdog wayward journalists.

Kelley's most cited fabrication was a brilliantly written front-page, first-person account of an August 9, 2001 suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem that killed 15 people.

In that story, he explained in painful detail how the bomber had elbowed his way into the crowded restaurant and recreated the horror of three men being decapitated.

But none of the dozens of reporters who covered that horrific scene -- including the wire services and the Israeli press -- picked up on Kelley's story. There was good reason not to. "No one was decapitated," Gil Kleiman, foreign press spokesman for the Israel National Police, informed me last month. "We would have told that to any reporter who called us."

It wasn't until the USA Today internal reporting team went to Jerusalem earlier this year that any journalist bothered to follow up Kelley's story on the Sbarro bombing, according to Kleiman.

And those USA Today probers found out that Kelley lied when, among other things, he said he had seen the suicide bomber. …

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