The ‘Virus of Fear’ at USA Today

USA Today has investigated itself looking for reasons why reporter Jack Kelley was able to make up stories for so long without anyone speaking up.

Reading the stories from USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, the most stunning reading was the descriptions of the newsroom. Kelley was considered “protected” by the top editors. Other reporters and mid-level reporters learned it was best to say nothing at all about Kelley. The Wall Street Journal used “virus of fear” from the internal report to describe the USA Today newsroom.

It’s a dangerous thing when higher ups don’t want to hear bad news. It’s also dangerous when people in an organization no longer care about the quality of their work.

The problems at USA Today sound worse than the problems Jason Blair caused for N.Y. Times with his made-up stories. Kelley was making up stories for more than 10 years, Blair was at the N.Y. Times a shorter period. The report makes the resignations of Karen Jurgensen, editor and Hal Ritter, the managing editor, understandable since they were at the top. Lax editing and newsroom leadership were among the problems cited in the report. An AP story reporting Ritter’s resignation says another top editor, Brian Gallagher, the newspaper’s executive editor, has said he’s leaving.

There is irony that The Atlantic is running in the current issue Howell Raines’ recollection of his time as executive editor of the N.Y. Times, which ended because of Blair. Atlantic has excerpts of the article online. The online excerpts include Raines’ view about the effort to reform the newsroom and the strong resistance he met.

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