Journalists Behaving Badly

Since the discovery of massive journalistic fraud involving plagiarism and fabrication by the New York Times’ Jayson Blair, new revelations have emerged about similar offenses by journalists at other prominent newspapers. Underscoring that journalism is as fallible as any other endeavor, these additional cases of dereliction will hopefully reinforce editors’ willingness to address reader concerns about error and distortion. The following examples of serious misconduct by journalists have recently come to light.

USA TODAY – Jack Kelley

Among a number of stories now shown to be marred by outright invention was a particularly lurid piece by USA Today Jack Kelley from September 2001. A scathing report about a gang of Jewish Orthodox thugs who terrorized Palestinians in Hebron, the article can still be found on anti-Israel Web sites. Entitled “Israeli Extremists Take Revenge on Palestinians,” the story begins:

After a quick prayer, Avi Shapiro and 12 other Jewish settlers put on their religious skullcaps, grabbed their semi-automatic rifles and headed toward Highway 60. There, they pushed boulders, stretched barbed wire and set tires afire to form a barricade that, they said, would stop even the biggest of Palestinian taxis. Then they waited for a vehicle to arrive. As they crouched in a ditch beside the road, Shapiro, the leader of the group, gave the settlers orders: Surround any taxi, “open fire” and kill as many of the “blood-sucking Arab” passengers as possible. “We are doing what (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon promised but has failed to do: drive these sons of Arab whores from the land of Israel,” said Shapiro, 42, who moved here with his wife and four children three years ago from Brooklyn. “If he won’t get rid of the Muslim filth, then we will.”

The article is presented by Palestinian propagandists as an example of victimization of innocent Palestinians by Israelis and as a counterbalance to historical accounts of how Hebron’s Jews were massacred by their Arab neighbors in 1929. The problem is, the story is invented. Author Jack Kelley apparently fabricated the character of Avi Shapiro and the damning accounts of Israeli cruelty toward Palestinians.

When the article was published, immediate questions were raised about its authenticity. Who, for example, were the supposedly Orthodox Jewish protagonists of Kelley’s story who, according to his first sentence, donned skullcaps only after prayers? Orthodox Jews wear skullcaps all day long and even non-Orthodox don skullcaps for prayers.

David Wilder, Hebron resident and spokesman for the Jewish Hebron community sent a detailed rebuttal to the publisher and editors of USA Today, requesting that they publish his letter and address the points he raised. Foremost in his rebuttal was the compelling fact that no one by the name of “Avi Shapiro” nor anyone fitting Kelley’s description resided in Hebron. The editorial staff of USA Today, however, chose to ignore Wilder’s request, did not investigate Kelley’s sources, and never published the rebuttal. 

Fast forward 20 months: an anonymous complaint from a USA Today staff member in May 2003 about other articles written by Kelley prompted the newspaper to check out a sampling of his pieces. Kelley attempted to mislead the investigators and was forced to resign in January 2004. Only then was a new, more extensive analysis done of over 700 stories Kelley had written since 1993. This investigation revealed evidence that Kelley fabricated several articles, plagiarized quotes, lied in speeches and attempted to deceive investigators.

Among Kelley’s apparent inventions are accounts about spending an evening with Egyptian terrorists in 1997, visiting a terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghani border in 2002, passing a Palestinian suicide bomber who subsequently detonated himself in a Jerusalem pizza shop in 2001, joining a hunt for Osama Bin Laden in 2003, and meeting a Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro who victimized Palestinians.

Investigators traveled to Israel to try to locate the article’s protagonist, Avi Shapiro. They were unable to do so, nor were they able to verify Kelley’s description of events. Confirming Mr. Wilder’s 2001 letter, Israeli authorities found no record of Avi Shapiro or anyone fitting Kelley’s description. Neither the Israeli Police nor the Palestinian State Information Service had any account of complaints about the incidents alleged by Kelley. According to the Israeli Government Press Office Director Daniel Seaman, Israel’s secret service, Shin Bet, also discounted Kelley’s account.

USA Today editors are to be commended for their rigorous investigation of Kelley’s work. The question remains, however, why they waited two and a half years before following up on legitimate and obvious concerns communicated by the public?

Chicago Tribune– Uli Schmetzer

Uli Schmetzer, a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune, was recently fired when the newspaper discovered that he had fabricated the name and occupation of a man he says he interviewed. On March 3, the Tribune issued the following editorial note:

In a Feb. 24 article from Australia about rioting after the death of an Aborigine boy, the following quote was attributed to a Graham Thorn, identified as a psychiatrist: “These people always complain. They want it both ways–their way and our way.”

“They want to live in our society and be respected, yet they won’t work. They steal, they rob and they get drunk. And they don’t respect the laws.”

Following an e-mail complaint from a reader in Australia, Tribune editors questioned Uli Schmetzer, the freelance writer of the story. Schmetzer, who served for 16 years as a Tribune foreign correspondent before retiring from the staff two years ago, admitted that both the name and the occupation of the speaker were made up. He maintains that the quotation was uttered by an Australian man of his acquaintance.

Fabrication of any sort in a news story is a violation of the fundamental ethical principals of journalism and simply is not tolerated at the Chicago Tribune. Schmetzer has been terminated as a contract writer with the newspaper.

The Tribune apologizes to our readers for this breach of trust.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that Schmetzer has taken liberties with a quote. In a Nov. 17, 2000 article, Schmetzer, then a foreign correspondent for the Tribune, took an Israeli soldier’s quote out of critical qualifying context in an apparent effort to build the case that Israel was callously acting with excessive force against Palestinians (“War of Attrition Claims Beloved Medic”).  He wrote:

Last month the Jerusalem Post reported Israel had trained four battalions for urban warfare in mock-up Palestinian villages. A story by Ariel [sic] O’Sullivan quoted a sargeant named Raz, a 20-year-old sharpshooter in the Nashon battalion, as saying:

“I shot two people in the knees. It’s supposed to break their bones and neutralize them but not kill them. How did I feel? Well, actually, I felt pretty satisfied with myself.”

What Schmetzer omitted in his article was the end of the quote which completely changed the understanding of Raz’s statement:

“I felt I could do what I was trained to do, and it gave me a lot of self-confidence to think that if we get into a real war situation I’d be able to defend my comrades and myself.” (Arieh O’Sullivan’s Oct. 27, 2000, jpost)

The Chicago Tribune commendably printed a correction Dec. 11, 2000 regarding Raz’s incomplete quote.

As Schmetzer’s newest misrepresentation concerning the death of the Aborigine boy comes to light, one wonders how many other unexposed distortions lie in the shadows of his nearly two-decades-old journalism career?


Readers, trust your intuition. If details appear incongruous or implausible, raise your concerns with the editor or ombudsman of the media outlet. If you do not receive satisfactory follow-up, send your concerns to media critics such as Fox News Warch, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, etc. and consult CAMERA for additional suggestions.

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