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David Folkenflik on USA Today debacle

Catherine, Elkridge: If reporters who have reached positions at very largepapers are basically liars, why should the public have any faith thatreporters at smaller papers are reporting the facts?

Folkenflik: Editors at small-town newspapers say they are far more likelyto be held accountable for mistakes or misrepresentations than theircounterparts at major national newspapers such as The New York Times or USA Today, the two that have suffered the worst credibility scandals of late.Mistakes on the local level are keenly felt and spark outrage on the hometurf of editors (and publishers). That's one reason why many olderreporters questioned why Jayson Blair had written only for big papers suchas the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Times instead of learning the ropes through traditional means -- like covering nighttime crime for a small-city daily.

One thing that emerged after the Blair scandal was thenumber of complaints about inaccuracies in his articles that fell throughthe cracks. But I'd also say that you shouldn't write off a wholeprofession based on the acts of a few notable scoundrels. Most reporters Iknow from big newspapers are highly capable and conscientious. Many areobsessive about precision and fairness in their copy. A few, clearly, arenot. But that's why Blair and particularly Kelley were so damaging -- theycorrode trust in a larger institution. From my standpoint as a reader andviewer, I try to rely on more than one media outlet to make sure thatstories hold up under scrutiny from different people.

Albert, Clarksville: Do you think Jack Kelley, [formerly of USA Today] andJayson Blair [formerly of The New York Times] show that there is a problemwith the ethics division at the journalism school at the University of Maryland?

Folkenflik: It is an astonishing and disturbing coincidence that bothattended the University of Maryland's journalism school. I tend to believe,however, that it is just that -- a coincidence. Kelley graduated in 1982;Blair attended from January 1995 through May 1999, though he did notgraduate. The school went through many changes between their tenures oncampus; it has become far more integrated into the profession, hiringdistinguished reporters and editors as faculty, and serving as the host ofthe Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the National Association ofBlack Journalists.

Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who was on the panel that wrote a report that provided vivid examples of the failures of editors at USA Today to catch Kelley, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he thought the proximity to Washington may have allowed both Kelley and Blair to get caught up in celebrity journalism. I'm not sure that I agree there is atrue connection. Kelley's career progressed entirely through his work atUSA Today. He joined the newspaper in 1982 before it published its firstedition and cultivated relationships with well-placed patrons there insubsequent years. Blair, on the other hand, was reliant on the contacts andsupport he received from faculty and administrators at College Park'sjournalism school to advance from internship to internship and paper topaper; I wrote about his relationship to the University of Maryland in this story from Feb. 29.

Steve, Towson: Does hiring an editor at USA Today with a Gannett pedigree stand to perpetuate the problems that created this situation in the firstplace?

Folkenflik: I think that's a very valid question. Many of the people Ispoke to during the USA Today debacle wanted the newspaper to name someone like Kovach himself, who had also been a senior figure at The New York Times but had never been a Gannett editor. Perhaps more than any othernewspaper company, Gannett has a very defined corporate culture, with anoverriding emphasis on profits and a specific way of managing staffs andapproaching the news. It was the very management of USA Today that cameunder such fire from the panel reviewing the Kelley scandal. And Kenneth A.Paulson, the new editor, is very much a Gannett editor who also trained atUSA Today and worked for founder Al Neuharth. But Paulson -- read hisbiography here -- has been well-received by a staff craving credibility and reform and deserves a chance to show what kind of news report he envisions. His new number two, John Hillkirk, is highly respected within the newspaper industry.

Ronnie, Clarksville: How does Kelly write a story that he had an exclusivewith Elian Gonzalez that never happened? There wasn't a single person tocheck that the meeting actually happened? How does this happen?

Folkenflik: Back in January 2000, Kelley wrote a story of visiting withElian Gonzalez's father at the father's home in Cardenas, Cuba. Last month,a team of reporters for the newspaper found that he had made up the story,that he had not visited the father there at all. My guess -- and it's simplythat -- is that the deception relied on two factors. First, I think Kelleywas trusted as someone who could deliver compelling narratives from far-offplaces. And second, there's not a free flow of information between the U.S.and Cuba. So even an article in USA Today might not get wide circulationthere. Had objections been lodged by officials of Fidel Castro's autocraticregime, they might not have been taken seriously. And, as the story wasessentially sympathetic to Elian's father, who wanted the boy returned toCuba, there was not much grounds for protest.

Joe, Baltimore: Why does The Sun never include transgressions that haveappeared in its own pages when writing about fabrications?

Folkenflik: I wouldn't say never. For example, here's a passage from thearticle I wrote last May after Blair was forced to resign from the Times:"The problem of the fabrication or lifting of material has cropped up atmany newspapers. In recent years, The Sun fired a classical music criticand reprimanded an art critic for appropriating passages from specializedtexts in separate stories. The Globe fired two columnists for pieces thatcould not be verified. And the [San Antonio] Express-News itselfexperienced two incidents in which writers reproduced information fromother publications without attribution."

I recognize we could do that every time we write about such issues,but I'm not sure that's always the best use of our space. Context matters --is the article about the industry, or about The Sun or about a specificinstance elsewhere? Have we put it on the record? Are we keeping faith withour readers? These are reasonable questions. But, on balance, I think we doa fairly good job. We certainly try and we talk about these issuesinternally.

Rick, Westminster: Can changes at the top of an organization such as USA Today really do anything to curtail renegade reporters? Why aren't peoplewith more direct contact with the reporter in question being affected?

Folkenflik: The three top editors at USA Today over Kelley are no longerthere -- Editor Karen Jurgensen hastily retired, Executive Editor BrianGallagher has been reassigned to run the editorial pages, and ManagingEditor Hal Ritter resigned after meeting with the paper's publisher. Itcertainly sends an internal message that ultimately people are accountablefor what happens under their watch. Additionally, I wouldn't be surprisedif the new management team led by Paulson makes significant changes overtime at the editing positions below them. Some of the key editors, such asformer deputy managing editor Mark Memmott, are already in different jobs.He's now a reporter, a position he voluntarily sought before the Kelleyscandal erupted. So I'd say reporters within USA Today are hopeful thatchanges are real and the newspaper can work to restore its credibility. Mystory from last week, when Paulson was named USA Today's editor and whenother newsroom appointments were made at the newspaper, can be read here.

Janice, Glenn Dale: Are there other journalists at USA Today who aresuspected of fabricating stories, too?

Folkenflik: Not to my knowledge. The review panel led by USA Today'sfounding editorial director, John Seigenthaler, and the team of reporters,led by Hillkirk, had a fairly broad mandate. But I haven't heard theyturned up anything on anyone else.

Chuck, Sykesville: The Sun wants us to consider it a trusted source ofinformation. But what steps is it taking to ensure that the kind of publicdeception that occurred at The New York Times and USA Today doesn't happen?

Folkenflik: I think newspaper editors here and elsewhere are going to haveto rise to confront that challenge squarely. Since the Blair scandal, TheSun's editors have spoken openly with reporters and staff about theoverriding need for precision, accuracy, fairness and integrity in ourreporting. Our internal guidelines about using unidentified sources, whichhave always been relatively strict, have become even more rigorous, withreview at the highest levels of the newsroom in most instances. And thepaper's publisher, Denise Palmer, has appointed Paul Moore, a senior andexperienced journalist, to become Public Editor, a position he took over atthe end of last month. He's already been filing internal memos to the staffabout coverage issues -- some comments positive, some negative. He'll befielding complaints from readers as well as the subjects of stories todetermine whether the newspaper handled things fairly. And he'll be writinga regular column about coverage issues. To guarantee that he's not beholdento the newsroom, he'll be reporting to the publisher, not editors. In myrole covering the media, I've also tried to make sure to include thenewspaper when it seemed warranted, from overhype of the Ravens during theSuper Bowl run a few years ago to the prickly relationship between MarylandGov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and The Sun last year.

Bill, Towson: Why, in your opinion, has there been so many instances offabricated stories in the last few years? With the exception of the JanetCooke case, you never heard of such things -- maybe they were hushed by thenews organizations involved. Now we've had reporters and columnists at theBoston Globe, New York Times, USA Today and even your paper, The Sun, fired over such transgressions.

Folkenflik: I think newspapers once tended to handle things quietly. Printreporters, save for a few high-profile columnists, aren't so well knownpublicly. The only reason we all know Janet Cooke is because her story wona Pulitzer -- had she been a metro reporter dismissed by the Post, we neverwould have recognized her name. But now, with bloggers such as Matt Drudgeand Jim Romenesko posting such transgressions, it gets picked up by thenational news. So we all know more about these things than we once did.

In addition, it's probably easier to plagiarize and fabricate things than everbefore, thanks to Google searches. But it's also easier for someone else togo back and check, whether to see if juicy quotes appear in previousarticles, or to reach people with first-hand knowledge of those places andsee if the accounts ring true.

Note from Folkenflik: That's it. Thanks for all the great questions.

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