Readers of MEDIA ETHICS may recall my piece in the Fall 2002 issue about graphic coverage in the American press of suicide bombings in Israel.
I had been surprised by how lurid these accounts were and was curious to know why reporters were writing them, why editors were waving them through and how readers were reacting to them. The most lurid of them all was USA Today reporter Jack Kelley's report of a bombing he witnessed outside a cafﾂ in Jerusalem in August 2001.
In July 2002, I had sent an e-mail to Kelley asking him to explain why he thought detailed descriptions of blood, wounds and body parts were important. He declined to comment. But a couple of months later he came to Penn State at the invitation of one of my colleagues. When we met I reminded him that I was writing about his suicidebombing story. This time he agreed to chat.
"I was the only reporter there," he told me. "I felt I should tell everything I saw, heard and felt."
Now it appears he also told some things that he did not see.
Kelley left USA Today in January 2004 under a cloud of suspicion that he had fabricated and plagiarized. On March 19 the paper published a front-page story and two full inside pages detailing the extent of his dishonesty. Working under the supervision of eminences grises Bill Hilliard, Bill Kovach and John Siegenthaler, a team of USA Today reporters and editors found problems with about 150 of the 720 stories Kelley had filed in the past decade. Among the stories singled out as the most egregious instances of his fast-and-loose approach was his Pulitzer Prize-finalist account of the suicide bombing.
My article in MEDIA ETHICS quoted passages from Kelley's story that described heads separating from bodies and rolling down the street, and the top of the head of the suicide bomber, minus its nose and mouth. All false, according to witnesses interviewed by USA Today. The Israeli National Police even provided photos of the bomber that showed head still attached to torso, nose and mouth intact.
Kelley stands by his story. But if he is lying? As I write this I glance over at the chair where he sat during our conversation about the breakfast test and think how odd it is to learn that we were talking about the wrong ethics issue.
There are plenty of compelling arguments one can make in defense of bearing witness to atrocity. In an often-murky moral universe, one clear imperative is to do what one can to alleviate human suffering. Sanitized accounts of suffering may fail to rouse us to that duty. But embellished accounts, once discovered, can enervate us: The news then is only propaganda, after all.
If I had Jack Kelley back in my office chair I would ask him why the truth wasn't horrible enough.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), p. 12.