Prize-winning Lies

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 28/03/2004
Last fortnight a five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee made an ignominious exit from USA Today after it was confirmed that he had filed fictitious stories over two decades.
Dasu Krishnamoorty

Too frequently stories appear in the American press that shatter the fragile faith readers have in the veracity of reports they read every day. In an election year, such fallibility plays havoc with the electoral choices the voters make. Last week saw a five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Jack Kelley making an ignominious exit from USA Today, America’s largest circulated daily. Over two decades, this star reporter sent fictitious stories without getting caught. A few months earlier, the Pulitzer Board shocked the American nation by declining to revoke its prize won in 1932 by Walter Duranty, The New York Times’ Moscow man in the Stalinist era. His reports concealed the dictator’s authoritarian ways, more especially millions of avoidable starvation deaths in Ukraine. Duranty thought that negative reporting at that time would block American recognition to the Stalin regime. Though Duranty’s pro-Stalin dispatches troubled the Times’ editors they did nothing to stop them. The board refused to revoke the prize and the Times decided to keep it. 

Last Friday, USA Today came out with two pages carrying several stories about the central character in an investigation it carried out to confirm doubts about the truth of stories filed by Jack Kelley, Today’s star reporter since its inception in 1982. According to USA Today’s version, Kelly invented at least eight major stories and five times won nominations from his editors, the last only two years ago, for the Pulitzer Prize. His story of fraud has many locales, many characters and, many plots that Today could not piece together to make a coherent account. For two decades Kelley passed off as the newspaper’s high profile, globetrotting reporter before he resigned in the first week of January this year, not before his employer cornered him with incontrovertible evidence about how he had misled the readers and the editors. To substantiate every lie he invented as explanation, he fabricated a score of other lies. He created witnesses where there were none. In the end USA Today was so puzzled by Kelley’s web of fiction that it could not decide whether Kelley was guilty or innocent.  

Like The New York Times which sat on Jayson Blair’s file of journalistic sins till a Washington Post man intercepted the Times’ internal e-mail and broadcast the story to the world, USA Today also treated the Kelley affair as a confidential personnel matter till Kelley himself made it public in interviews to other newspapers. The dramatis personae at the newspaper’s end are its editor Karen Jurgensen, executive editor Brian Gallagher and a former deputy managing editor Mark Memmott. The drama began with Gallagher receiving an anonymous note asking if Kelley’s stories were not fabricated or embellished. Thus started an investigation into Kelley’s reports in a general way but ultimately focused on a single story the paper published on the front page on July 14, 1999 under the headline "UN: Records link Serbs to war crimes." The anonymous note, of course, did not mention this story at all. 

According to USA Today, its editors learned from one of the paper’s reporters that shortly after the story was published an official from the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague had raised doubts about the existence of a notebook at the heart of the story. At that time, the reporter did not pass the complaint on to the editors. Kelley told executive editor Gallagher that he (Kelley) and a translator had met with two investigators in Belgrade. The primary subject of the interview was Natasa Kandic, a well-known human rights investigator whose name was not disclosed in the 1999 story but Today was disclosing it to its readers because Kelley had revealed it to The Washington Post. In an interview two months ago with Howard Kurtz, published in The Washington Post, Kelley said that he had persuaded a Russian translator, named Luda, to impersonate a Serbian translator, named Danielja Jacamovich, in a phone call to USA Today to corroborate an interview Kelley had with a Yugoslav human rights activist Natasa Kandic in the presence of Jacamovich.  

According to Kelley’s report on this interview, Natasa Kandic, whose name he did not mention in the report, had obtained ‘a Yugoslav army three-ring note book’ that ‘contains a direct order to a lieutenant to ‘cleanse’ a village in Kosovo. The War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague expressed doubts about the notebook. The reporter never told his editors about the Tribunal’s skepticism. Kelley’s report claimed that the notebook was the strongest and most direct evidence linking then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "ethnic cleansing." He also described its physical features and content in detail and said that the War Crimes Tribunal would make use of it in Milosevic’s trial. 

Alerted by an insider, Memmott took over the threads of investigation on September 3, 1999 and tried to get Kandic on the phone. He succeeded but Kandic told him that she did not remember any interview with Today’s reporter nor did she have any notebook matching the description Kelley gave to his editors. The next day Memmott asked Kelly for the name and telephone number of the translator. Kelley gave him the number and said her name was Danielja Jacamovich. A few days later, the star reporter told Memmott and Gallagher that there were two translators and not one and the document was brought not by the UN investigator but by an office boy. Kelley gave the name and the telephone number of the second translator.  

The editors found later that this second translator was an imposter hired by Kelley to tell them the answers he had tutored her to give. The editors failed to get in touch with the translator in Yugoslavia on the numbers Kelley gave. When the pressure increased, Kelley told Memmott that he had succeeded in passing a message to Jacamovich and that she was in the USA on business and would talk to him (Memmott) soon. On October 1 and 2, a woman called Memmott identifying herself as Jacamovich. However, she gave information on certain points even before they were raised and used phrases that Kelley used in his conversation with the editors. She also told them that she would be in Belgrade next week.  

This woman did not give any contact number and when Memmott traced back the phone number it turned out to be a Houston number. Finally, Memmott went to Belgrade and tried to meet persons whose telephone numbers Kelley had given him. Those persons Memmott met told him that they had never heard of Jacamovich. Memmott returned to the USA on October 17 and to his consternation found that the woman who had called him from Houston was not who she claimed to be. Kelley later told Gallagher and Memmott that he had to invent the imposter because he was under pressure to explain his actions. In the end Kelley resigned only after he was asked to resign or face dismissal. USA Today’s accounts of Kelley’s deception do not mention when this fraud was detected except saying that an insider alerted the paper to the discrepancies in his stories. The newspaper had to disclose the entire story because other newspapers began discussing Kelley and his exit from Today. 

The Duranty story is from the Times stable and is as ancient as 1932 but became news because only three months ago the Pulitzer Prize board had decided not to revoke a prize it had awarded Duranty for his Moscow reporting despite nationwide protest by Ukrainian immigrants in America who were observing the 70th anniversary of the death of millions of Ukrainians due to starvation in Stalinist Russia. On the Times refusal to disown Duranty, National Review Online columnist Andrew Stuttaford said, "The 1932 Pulitzer, the prize about which The New York Times was so proud for so long, was won by a liar and a fraud, won by a journalist for whom genocide was not news that was fit to print, won by a journalist who by his silence made his newspaper an accomplice to mass murder. 

Here are some of Duranty’s lies listed by Arnold Beichman in the Weekly Standard: 

"There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be."  (Page 1, NYT, Nov. 15, 1931). 

"Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." (NYT, Aug.23, 1933). 

"There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." (Page 13, NYT, Mar.31, 1933). 

"Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please. Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and the strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin’s program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding."  (Page 6, NYT, Dec.9, 1932). 

One really does not know how many Pulitzer frauds are waiting to be uncovered and how many star reporters have built their reputation on pure fiction. In India, the denials that newspapers condescend to publish indicate the tip of the iceberg but hardly anyone is interested in going beyond the tip and uncover the fraud. Some of the reports of the Press Council too are a pointer to such journalistic sins. The silence on such public deception points to an unwritten understanding among the media and journalists to suppress uncomfortable truths. Top newsmen in India know malpractices in their newspapers but they know the value of silence.

 

Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com

 

 

 

 

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