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Jack Kelley Accused of Faking Stories; Liberal Radio Launched

Aired March 28, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Global deception: USA Today's Jack Kelley fakes stories from around the world. Is it too easy for foreign correspondents to fabricate?

Left turn at the mike. A liberal network launches this week with big names like Al Franken and Jeanine Garofalo. Can they find an audience?

And the White House media blitz to take down terror expert Richard Clarke.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on journalistic lies. And a bit later, liberal radio. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Jack Kelley put USA Today on the map with exclusives from such places as Afghanistan, Israel, Kosovo and Cuba. But an independent investigation found that Kelley fabricated parts of at least eight major stories. Even wrote scripts, asking sources to lie to his editors. How could he have gotten away with it for so long?

Joining me now here in Washington, Donatella Lorch, who spent years covering hot spots around the world for The New York Times, NBC News and Newsweek. She's now the director of the Knight International Press Fellowships. And Washington Post reporter Charles Lane, who uncovered the journalistic deceptions of Steven Glass when he was editor of The New Republic.


Donatella Lorch, were you impressed at any point by Jack Kelley's reporting?

DONATELLA LORCH, FMR. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: No. I was very aware of him. I always wondered, how in the world did he manage to get such amazing stories? I never bumped into him in all my travels around the world. But people spoke about him in the newsroom and among colleagues. And I always thought, wow.

KURTZ: Admiringly or suspiciously?

LORCH: Initially -- the beginning, always admiringly. "How did that guy get that?" And then there were stories later on that I wondered, in terms of topics that I knew a lot about, is that doesn't make sense.

KURTZ: Chuck Lane, you've been a foreign correspondent as well. Any Kelley stories that set off your meter?

CHARLES LANE, FMR. EDITOR, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Well, that one about Cuba, where he supposedly witnessed firsthand eight people or so trying to get into a boat to flee the island.

KURTZ: And said that they later drowned.

LANE: Right. And then somebody who arranged the trip was tortured in the secret police headquarters in Cuba.

When I read it at the time in 2000, in the middle of Elian Gonzalez thing, I thought, "Wow, what a dramatic story." But there were several details, having covered Cuba myself, that didn't sit right with me.

So just like Donatella, I thought, "Gee, you know, I've been there. I've never seen something like that." But I'm here to tell you that I didn't write a letter to USA Today and complain.

LORCH: He wasn't the source.

KURTZ: Well, you know, he's the only guy who happens to see -- the only reporter, excuse me -- who happens to see the Jerusalem pizza bombing in 2001. In fact, he talked about it on this program. Let's take a look at that clip.


JACK KELLEY, USA TODAY: I turned, and there was the gentleman who would be the suicide bomber in front of me. I said, "Excuse me," and walked about 30 yards right down the street, when kaboom.


KURTZ: He's also the only guy who sees the Israeli settlers supposedly firing on a Palestinian taxi. He's also the only guy who sees the diary about Serbian war crimes.

You two heard the buzz. Why didn't this set off alarm bells at USA Today among the editors?

LORCH: I don't know. I'm mystified, because there's too many of the "only guy" doing it. And it's getting to be a crowded world out there in the foreign correspondent world. You can't help but bump into one, two, three, you know, a dozen of your colleagues out there.

You're not always just the only one to see it. And, you know, even with me, you know, he had a front-page story about Special Forces right after 9/11. And I remember when I read it thinking to myself, "This doesn't make sense." I mean, how does he know that the SF troops are already in Afghanistan? KURTZ: Special Forces?

LORCH: The Special Forces troops. And my editor turning to me and saying, "Well, he got this. Why can't you get it?"

KURTZ: Didn't that make you feel bad?


KURTZ: Now, you went through this. You were Steven Glass' editor in 1998 at The New Republic. Now, he had a lot of stories that, in retrospect, you look back and say, boy, this stuff just is wild. But at the time, they were published.

LANE: Right. Well, I think one of the things Jack Kelley exploited was the inherent advantage that the faker abroad has.

KURTZ: Over the domestic faker?

LANE: Yes, which is, you're in a remote location. It's inherently difficult to send out a follow-up person to fact-check or whatever. And, furthermore, your editor back home is less secure in questioning what you've seen abroad because they don't know Pakistan, they don't know Cuba, they don't know Israel. And so...

KURTZ: They haven't been there. They're not on the ground.

LANE: Exactly.

KURTZ: They're not talking to people.

LORCH: And so it was easy for him to say, well, gee, I have a secret source over here, this secret agent in the Israeli security service. Just, you know, trust me, there's this relationship. And I think the natural, understandable, but unfortunately disastrous response of the editor would be, OK, Jack.

KURTZ: There was a recent incident at the Chicago Tribune where they let go -- the paper let go a long-time correspondent in Australia who made up a phony psychiatrist and attributed to him a very eye- popping quote, and was caught only because a blogger in Australia had blown the whistle on that.

But aren't editors supposed to be skeptical? Aren't they supposed to question reporters? How do you know this? Where's the evidence? Can we see your notes? Or does that not happen when you're 5,000 miles away?

LORCH: Well, when you're 5,000 -- by the time you get to be a foreign correspondent, in theory you've worked up the ranks. You've been trained with the newspaper, you have a reputation.

You go out there because your editor trusts your reporting ability and trusts your ability, when you see something to report what you see. And, for example, when I was in Africa, I was dealing with my editors back home at The New York Times. And they trusted the fact that I reported 800 bodies dead.

I think the easy thing when you're overseas to do is, you know, you can create your own sources. You can invent the peasant. You can invent the woman. There's no way of checking back home in the states.

KURTZ: And do you think that happens much? Are you suspicious of other foreign correspondents embellishing, exaggerating, beyond just Jack Kelley?

LORCH: You know, after Jason Blair, whenever I read The New York Times, after almost 10 years at The New York Times, I first read the bylines and I trusted the people I knew first before bylines that I never -- people I'd never met. That took me awhile to get over it. I think that the vast majority of foreign correspondents are hard working.

KURTZ: Honest.

LORCH: Honest. Because Jack Kelley was hard working, obviously. He traveled a lot. And, you know, they risk their lives to bring the story back here.

KURTZ: There's also garden variety plagiarism. After all, it's not that hard to rip off the local papers, right?

LANE: Well, he stole, apparently, some material from our own paper, The Washington Post.

KURTZ: And from the London paper and from lots of other papers.

LANE: And those -- see, that sort of stuff, with databases and everything, should have been a little easier to pick up.

KURTZ: You have the exact same quote attributed to a person, and it appears someplace else two weeks earlier, two months earlier.

LANE: I think we should -- if I can say this, Howie -- not to lose sight of the fact that some of the false stories he did, did real damage. And, furthermore, you know, played their own little role in misinforming and misinfluencing public opinion. For a very good example, the Israeli settler, you know, the sort of vicious, right wing terrorist who didn't really exist.

KURTZ: Well, talking about Muslim filth. And that set off quite a stir in the Middle East, understandably so.

LANE: The Cuban government is a very repressive government. It's a hard government to libel. But Jack Kelley libeled them by making up a story about how they had tortured these people who didn't really exist.

KURTZ: You mentioned Jayson Blair earlier. Is what Kelley did over the course of about a decade, as far as we know at this point, worse than Jayson Blair's infractions?

LORCH: I think it is. KURTZ: Why?

LORCH: Because he did it for so long. Because he built his way up in his own organization through these stories. And his editors believed him and promoted him and paid him well. And Jayson Blair had a much shorter span of work at The New York Times. And he was caught a lot faster.

KURTZ: And Jayson Blair was a relatively young...

LORCH: He was a young...

KURTZ: ... reporter, compared to Jack Kelley, who was the biggest star on USA Today's staff. If it is the case that it is at least as bad and probably worse than Blair, why is Jack Kelley's getting just barely a fraction of the media attention?

LANE: That's a very good question that I've wondered about. And I think the only answer I can come up with is one is The New York Times, America's number one newspaper of record, et cetera. And the other...

KURTZ: That's won all these Pulitzers.

LANE: Exactly. And I think it's really unfortunate, because I think over the years USA Today has invested and worked very hard to improve and become a very fine newspaper. And, unfortunately, this incident is only going to set that effort back. And it's going to harm all of Jack Kelley's colleagues at the paper.

KURTZ: Another factor, it seems to me, is that the Blair drama set off at the Times a huge, newsroom struggle, which ultimately led to the removal...


LORCH: Yes. And nothing much has happened.

KURTZ: That doesn't seem to be happening at USA Today.

LANE: Well, there was a kind of effort to sweep it under the rug and not search for all the underlying causes in management and the rest. I think USA Today, in some ways, was a little bit more aggressive in rooting it out.

KURTZ: But isn't there also the question of race? I mean, there was a whole affirmative action debate about Jayson Blair?

LORCH: There could be, probably. I mean, its just been -- Jack Kelley has been swept under the rug. If I talk to people who aren't journalists, they haven't even heard about him.

KURTZ: Because it doesn't get much coverage on television.


KURTZ: It certainly got a lot of coverage...

LANE: No, I think you're right. The race angle gave it a little bit extra energy, that story.

KURTZ: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Chuck Lane, Donatella Lorch.

LORCH: Pleasure.

KURTZ: And when we come back, can an upstart liberal network compete with talk radio's conservative giants? That's next.



For 15 years, talk radio has had an aggressively conservative tilt. But this week, a new outfit called Air America Radio plans to challenge the notion that liberal talk doesn't sell. The network debuts Wednesday in four of the nation's biggest markets: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Joining me now here in Washington is Air America's CEO, Mark Walsh. And in New York, the co-creator of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," and one of Air America's new talk show hosts, Lizz Winstead.

Mark Walsh, liberal radio has flopped until now. Why is your little venture going to be different?

MARK WALSH, CEO, AIR AMERICA: Two reasons. First, we're doing a full broadcast day from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every single day. So we're controlling the listener experience much more than prior individual standalone shows had tried.

And, number two, we're controlling our destiny with distribution. Instead of doing the traditional syndication marketplace deal, like a Rush Limbaugh has done, we are leasing or buying radio stations in major markets. And we're the programming source for all the hours on that station. Not having to deal with syndicators allows us some real freedom.

KURTZ: But now instead of hiring the likes of Mario Cuomo and Jerry Brown, two liberals who have tried talk radio before, you're hiring comedians and entertainers. You've got Al Franken; you've got Jeanine Garofalo; you've got Chuck D. Why are you going that route?

WALSH: Because people want to be entertained. Radio is an entertainment medium. And if you bore them with didactic commentary that is about eat your vegetables and learn what issues are really important, they will punch that button and change the challenge. So the reason we have incredible talent from colleagues of mine like Lizz Winstead, and others that you mentioned, is that we have to make people understand that comedy and information can co-exist.

Comedy politics and information can co-exist. Radio is about entertainment. If we entertain, we will have listeners that are loyal.

KURTZ: And speaking of entertainment, Lizz Winstead, is your first job in your new radio role to make people laugh or to fire up the liberal base?

LIZZ WINSTEAD, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I don't think -- I think it's a combination of both. I think that if we do our jobs right, the liberal base and also the centrist space, the independent base are going to be fired up because we want to inform and enlighten and create dialogue. And then, also, satirically point out what we believe is wrong with the current administration's policies of bringing, you know, the world and the nation to a different place.

And I think humor is a good way to get people sort of off guard, get them listening. And then the information really will hit it home for us.

KURTZ: Now, you've been a Comedy Central writer and producer. You've been a standup comedian. It's very different, isn't it, to be behind the microphone three hours a day?

WINSTEAD: Well, I think, yes. Three hours a day is the thing that we're all becoming really comfortable with. But when you have your roots in standup, like so many of these people do, the only way you're successful is by connecting through amplification to your audience.

And when you have Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo and Mark Marin and Chuck D, and hopefully myself, you have people who are so experienced at getting the message out and have made a really nice living at it. So communication with these people is second nature.

KURTZ: So you would say what kind of thing about President Bush to your audience?


KURTZ: Right now. Go for it.

WINSTEAD: Right now, I'd say two words: 9/11 Commission. Talk to us.

KURTZ: That's not very funny.

WINSTEAD: Well, you know what? Sometimes it doesn't have to be. Actually, it's tragic.

But, yes, I mean, he needs to testify. That's what he needs to be doing right now. He needs to tell us in straight dope under oath about what the heck is going on.

KURTZ: And, Mark Walsh, you're starting in just four cities, as I mentioned. I know you want to acquire more stations. I know you're looking at the satellite. But it's a long time, it seems to be, before you can have a big nationwide impact.

WALSH: See, the one chance you give Lizz to be funny, she isn't funny. Come on, Lizz. You had to make us laugh.

WINSTEAD: Mark, you're the funnier person.

WALSH: I had to go there.

But to your question, we're going to probably announce in the first maybe 60 to 90 days after launch, a serious of affiliation or purchases in the top 20 markets in America. But to your point, we will not be a national network. But we will deliver a national audience of ears, over probably 20 to 30 to 40 percent of the gross households in America.

And for network buyers, advertisers, to reach that percentage of the U.S., you will get in some network buys. So our advertising revenue streams should be pretty robust.

The only other point I'll make, the second point is, most revenue in radio, advertising revenue, is local. So our local markets are big and robust advertising environments already. Our local advertising revenue stream we're pretty confident about.

KURTZ: You have some of your own money in this thing. Are you prepared to lose some money for a while?

WALSH: Yes, I am. Risk is my middle name.

KURTZ: You heard it here. All right.

Lizz Winstead, I'm sure you'll be talking not only about the Bush administration, but about conservatives, who, after all, have dominated this medium for a long time. What's your view of Rush Limbaugh, a tremendously successful radio entertainer? Although, I'm sure you disagree with most of what he has to say.

WINSTEAD: You know, anybody who can get a message across effectively like Rush does, you can't argue with that. He's successful. He's on point.

His point is completely bizarre and out of touch. But he is definitely on point.

You know, for us, it's not really that interesting to be just a blowhard, to be the messenger and the message and the expert. You know, we want to do something different, which is, you know, provide people with new ideas that can do things differently in a satirical way, in a funny way, and an inspiring way. But that's why it's great to have entertainers hosting these shows, because they don't think they are the expert. They want to make experts to the dialogue and then make the dialogue interesting and compelling.

KURTZ: What do you mean you don't want to be a blowhard? I thought that was the secret to radio success. You've got the microphone; people are tuning in to listen to you. Don't want to pop off and give your liberal views?

WINSTEAD: You know, bathtub used to be the best thing to drink until they introduced something smooth and more interesting to the liquor market. We're hopefully going to replace the bathtub gin of right wing radio with a nice, single malt scotch version of politics and commentary.

KURTZ: Mark Walsh, conservative radio works because there are millions of conservatives out there who are hungry for an alternative to what they see as a mainstream media that's sort of crawling with liberals, or at least people who lean to the left. I'm not sure that potential liberal listeners have that same hunger.

WALSH: Well, let's hope you're wrong. But even if you're not wrongs, I think there's a chunk of the U.S. -- if you look at the bell curve of people in the U.S., there's a chunk of the U.S. who would consider themselves centrists, A. B, who would consider themselves neither conservative or liberal on an issue-by-issue basis.

They may be for gun control and against abortion, or vice versa. They pick candidates, they pick issues, they pick sort of world views based upon viewpoints.

I would suggest to you that our talk radio network will provide entertainment for these folks, where almost on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate, social issue-by-social issue basis, they can find things that are entertaining. Does that mean we'll have the red- blooded, blowhard-loving stuff of viewers and listeners that Rush has? No, probably not that tight an audience that just love every word he says.

But we will have a broader audience, I would suggest to you, who, on an issue-by-issue basis or a host-by-host basis -- some will love Lizz, some will love Chuck D, some will love Al, maybe some will love all three -- will tune in to be entertained.

At the end of the day, Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. He may not admit it that much, but he is an entertainer. And if we hit that number, if we hit that word just as well as he does, we'll have a very good business.

KURTZ: Will people who can't stand Al Franken tune in just so they can...

WALSH: Hey, a whole chunk of people listen to Rush that he calls lurkers, who really hate him...

WINSTEAD: Like me.

WALSH: Like me. I listen to Rush a lot and I lurk.

KURTZ: Two closet Rush fans right here.

Lizz Winstead, are you going to be on the air -- obviously, we're in the middle of a campaign season -- basically bashing George Bush and defending John Kerry? Do you see that as your role?

WINSTEAD: I am going to be bashing George Bush because of the freakishly horrible way he has taken this country in the wrong direction and the way he's actually taken a thing like 9/11 and turned the world against us. So is it embracing John Kerry? It is embracing whoever can beat George Bush, yes.

KURTZ: But, I mean, can you see yourself criticizing John Kerry? Very rarely do conservative radio hosts take issue with President Bush. They do it sometimes. Are you going to be sort of a loyal soldier when it comes to trying to get a Democrat elected to the White House?

WINSTEAD: You know, this is not -- it's equal opportunity. You know, when you have satire, you have to do equal opportunity stuff. If John Kerry chooses to make a mistake or fall down or have something that I don't personally believe in, I'm definitely going to bring it up.

We are not the tool of the Democratic Party. We are people who -- we're going to appeal to people who believe that the one thing they know for sure is that George Bush is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is anytime.

KURTZ: We've got about 10 seconds. You're not just looking for ditto-heads.

WINSTEAD: No, we want no ditto-heads. In fact, ditto is banned from our network.

WALSH: Ditto-heads implies you're not a thinker. We want people to think.

WINSTEAD: That's right.

KURTZ: All right. Well, Lizz stole your final comments. Mark Walsh, thanks for joining us.

Lizz Winstead, in New York, thanks for joining us as well.

Still to come, former White House aide Richard Clarke hits the airwaves. And the Bush administration hits back.

That's next.


KURTZ: Time now for the Spin Cycle.


KURTZ (voice-over): It was one heck of a book launch for Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official who accused President Bush of mishandling 9/11 in an interview on "60 Minutes." Rarely has the country seen the kind of search and destroy mission the Bush administration launched against Clarke this week.

Condoleezza Rice led the media blitz with a Washington Post op-ed piece and appearances on five morning shows. She said Clarke didn't do such a hot job during the Clinton administration. CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Dick Clarke was, indeed, the counterterrorism czar for a long time for this government. He was the counterterrorism czar when the al Qaeda was strengthening in the '90s. He was the counterterrorism czar when they attacked our embassies in 1998. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted.

KURTZ: Vice President Cheney slammed Clarke on Rush Limbaugh's show.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He wasn't in loop, frankly, on a lot of the stuff.

KURTZ: White House chief of staff Andy Card also made the rounds to defend his boss.

ANDY CARD, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: If Dick Clarke had a way to understand that that attack was going to come and didn't say anything about it, he was irresponsible and he did not live up to his oath of office.

KURTZ: The press began to take notice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Never before has this White House launched such a ferocious and personal attack against a domestic critic.

KURTZ: Fox News got permission from the White House to put on the record a 2002 background briefing in which Clarke defended the Bush administration's record on fighting terrorism. That drew a blast from 9/11 Commission member Bob Kerrey.

BOB KERREY (D), COMMISSION MEMBER: Fox should say occasionally fair and balanced after putting something like this out.

KURTZ: But what about the contradictions in Clarke's account?

RICHARD CLARKE, FMR. COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER: It seems very ironic to me that what the White House is sort of saying is they don't understand why I, as a special assistant to the president of the United States, didn't criticize the president to the press. I would have been fired within an hour.


KURTZ: When the White House rolls out the heavy media artillery, it can draw some serious blood.

Up next, your e-mail.


KURTZ: Last week, we asked whether RELIABLE SOURCES should have interviewed former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair about his dozens of fabricated stories.

Brad writes: "I'm completely baffled as to why we are giving this fellow any attention at all. He's an arrogant, self-serving, pathological liar who can't accept blame for what he did."

But Charles in Michigan writes: "Mr. Blair may be a bad character and even evil, but there is no denial that he's even newsworthy. Isn't CNN a news organization?"

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.



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