Kelley’s friends in journalism seeking both compassion and truth

Christianity Today has posted (and others, such as, have quickly linked to) a Tony Carnes story about the behind-the-scenes efforts being played by the Christian journalists in mainstream media who are close friends with former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley. The key lines are:

Kelley’s Christian colleagues have responded personally to him concerning the preliminary report on Kelley’s reporting. … Their dilemma is how to support Kelley without losing their commitment to the truth.

This is well stated. There is a lively community of Christian who work in journalism in Washington, D.C., and it crosses all kinds of political and denominational lines. The agony of the current situation is well described throughout this CT article. For example, when the scandal broke conservative columnist Cal Thomas told CT:

“I have a nagging feeling that there is more to this than we know.” Although Thomas won’t say what he discussed with Kelley this week, he says that reporters of great integrity convincingly made the charges against Kelley. “I do not think that the evidence is plausibly deniable,” he concluded.

Thomas concluded that there were only three possibilities, a conclusion that many other Christian journalists share: “Either all these guys are lying, which is not credible. Or that Jack was not telling the truth or that he is delusional. I don’t see any other alternative.”

The conclusion for Thomas is both sobering and hopeful: “For any believer, redemption is the ultimate goal.”

P.S. (Monday) The Washington chapter of has responded to requests for a statement about the Kelley crisis. It stresses that this prayer group unequivocally opposes “any attempt to transgress the rules of journalistic integrity, especially on the part of those who profess the Christian faith.” The statement ends by saying:

At the same time, even if Jack had robbed a bank and were arrested and imprisoned, we would not desert him as a Christian brother who is paying the price for a serious violation of the law. … Jack remains a Christian brother and will need the support of Christian family and friends as he comes to terms with everything that has happened. Our position is that, though we are strongly against all of the actions of which Jack Kelley is accused, we will do our best to provide him with friendship and spiritual support as he faces what needs to be faced.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    While I respect the friends of Kelley coming to his aid (though, I hope, not his defense), I have to say that the rallying-round coming from Christian journalists strikes me as the kind of tribal thinking that makes non-Christians and less-Christians nervous. Kelley lied. And Kelley’s lies contributed to national opinion and thus foreign policy. Who can say if anything would have gone differently? Who can say it wouldn’t have?

    Also, why didn’t Cal Thomas and others rally round Jayson Blair, also a Christian?

  • Tmatt

    I would assume that they do not know Blair, as they have known Kelley for years. They were noted asked about Blair, as far as I know. They have been asked for comments on Kelley on the hour, every day. So that is one reason for a public statement. It is hard to see rallying around a friend as strange. This happens in times of pain and tragedy.

    Kelley’s friends asked that he be given a fair hearing and a fair investigation. It certainly seems that this took place. Thus, they have reacted to both with sadness and calls for Jack to speak out and make his peace. The call for all Christians at all times is the same: repent.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Fair enough. But as a critic of the press’s stereotyping of Christians, don’t you find it disturbing that journalists were asked for their view on Kelley as “Christians,” and not on Blair? That Kelley’s first label was “Christian,” as Blairs first label was “black,” when both should have been dealt with as journalists who broke the rules.

  • Terry Mattingly

    Not really. I know the DC Christian journalism scene inside out and Blair simply never took part in any activity that I knew of. Again, let me stress… This is not simply a matter of conservative vs. liberal or whatever. I’m talking Sojourners crowd, the lot. It would be interesting to ask one of the church-goers in the Washington Post newsroom if they knew of this.

  • James Freeman

    Two things strike me about the CT story.

    First, the “star system” — which always has been present in American journalism and seems to have become more outrageous by the second — has to be killed. Now.

    This “star system” spread to American journalism schools more than a generation ago, in the wake of Watergate and the notoriety of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Perhaps it was present before then, but I can’t speak to that . . . just what I saw as a journalism student in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the “Watergate” syndrome was in full flower among journalists of my generation.

    It must be killed there, and killed ruthlessly. In the setting of a journalism program, the “star system” corrupts young minds at the very time of their formation in the craft. The “star system” not only messes with egos and thwarts accountability, it corrupts the educational process and the integrity of journalism education.

    It also demonstrates some pretty crappy things about human nature. Like how parasitic we are, trading upon the “star” status of notable students and alumni to demonstrate how damned nifty we (and the “responsible” schools) all are.

    All in the name of the Almighty Dollar, of course.

    Thus, it goes without saying that — within the present “star system” — accountability and even a modicum of professional sobriety really is in no one’s interest. This is bad.

    Of course, it is at least somewhat commendable that institutions like USA Today and The New York Times had the intestinal fortitude to investigate and come clean when the ugly facts started to become unavoidably obvious.

    And they “bravely” hung Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley out to dry. Not that it was undeserved, mind you.

    However, that bravery usually does not include Dr. Frankenstein hanging himself out to dry (and making it stick) for creating that damned monster in the first place. The resignations of folks like Howell Raines at the Times, for example, is not curative; it is tokenism and, to a lesser degree, scapegoating.

    Not long ago at all, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were promotional fodder and feel-good icons for their former employers and, I am sure, their alma maters. Now they are pariahs, and the Ministry of Truth busily erases all trace of their existence.

    And the promotions departments and the development directors do not take the opportunity to reflect (“I was a dope. I was a dope. I was a dope. Serves me right. Serves me right. Serves me right.”), but instead go looking for the next “star” to glom off of.

    And the broken, pathetic flotsom is thrown away, no longer of any use to the starmakers.

    That’s what I call a SYSTEM!

    Secondly — and I am getting around to the second thing that struck me about the CT article — what’s the deal with Kelley’s pastor spilling his guts about matters of confession and counseling?

    Isn’t that . . . oh, UNETHICAL, to put it mildly? Now, if Kelley gave his permission for his pastor to discuss such things with the media, that is one thing. And if that was the case, CT ought to have mentioned that fact.

    I, however, am grateful to God that — despite its present dysfunction and shame — I belong to the Catholic Church, whose priests are expected to accept torture and death over blabbing all the sordid things I have confessed.

  • Anonymous

    James writes: “Not long ago at all, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were promotional fodder and feel-good icons for their former employers…” Great point. Everyone knew this uncomfortable truth about Blair (or rather, the Times; the paper’s tokenism was not Blair’s fault). Was Kelley likewise USA Today’s “proof” that it is sensitive to evangelical readers?

    Also: Just heard NPR’s On The Media discuss Kelley today, by listing some of the punditry elicited by Kelley’s phony reporting. For instance, his claim that he’d seen Palestinian ambulances used to transport arms (false) undoubtedly hardened many hearts to moderate factions in that conflict. And justified, in the minds of Kelley’s American readers, some of the Israeli military’s abuses of power.

    Remember the outrage at Tawana Brawley? Her lies are small fry compared to Kelley’s. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but rather that he should be held accountable. The victims of his lies deserve that just as much.

  • Jeff Sharlet/The Revealer

    Oops — didn’t mean to post anonymously. That’s me below.

  • Chris Bugbee

    Although I can’t quite recall the precise words until the transcript goes up on the “On the Media” site Tuesday, Salon contributing writer John Gorenfeld went a bit further in his discussion of why readers were so willing to believe in Kelley’s oft-colorful dispatches in the interview aired yesterday than he did in his Salon piece.

    In documenting the degree to which Kelley’s most egregious (and in retrospect most outlandish) narratives were accepted precisely because they trafficed in (and more to the point, served to confirm) existing religious stereotypes (e.g., the bloodthirsty, revenge-driven Palestinian and/or Jewish vigilantes), Gorenfeld points up the media’s real failure.

    In the interview, Gorenfeld again cited Charles Lane’s explanation for Stephen Glass’s long run of successful plagiarism at The New Republic. Kelley’s stories were accepted because, as with Glass’s before him, “They fit into the preexisting grooves that are already etched into everybody’s heads, things we think or are predisposed to believe are true.”

    Kelley played to received cultural stereotypes of bloodthirsty Muslims and hateful Jewish settlers, and the tropes of mainstream media coverage provided ready vectors that speeded the spread of his narratives. His stories were simply too good not to be true.

    How ironic that a reporter lionized for his evangelical bona fides should be the exemplar of the mainstream media’s greatest failing re matters of religion — its inability to get behind received notions of religious identity, location and culture to the deeper, more complex world of which they are only a part. This has become even more pronounced now that various political interests are determined to revive the culture wars, in which religion serves neither to enlighten nor to inspire, but only to inflame.

    His by-line now banished (until, I suppose, the inevitable memoir of repentance and recovery [e.g. Glass] or self-justification (e.g. Raines in The Atlantic) ) Jack Kelley’s personal redemption is now, thankfully, a private concern. The redemption of media coverage of religion is a much more pressing matter. It is not surprising that most commentators would rather discuss the former than the latter.

    (cue the pulsating music behind the voice-over) “Next up after the break–Same-sex marriage: The forces of God against the Armies of the Night — And we’ll tell you who’s winning!”

  • Chris Bugbee

    Blogger Atrios asks what we are to make of the pattern of Kelley’s fabrications which appear to have been intended to inflame ethnic tensions?

    “Here’s Howie Kurtz on why no one (him) cares about the Jack Kelley story:

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

    Of course, what Kurtz should know is that Kelley’s editors explicitly stated that the fact that he was a devout Christian made them more likely to give him a pass. Why is this not a story? And why has Kurtz not attempted to address the substance of Kelley’s fabrications – fabrications which were largely designed to inflame ethnic tensions between Jews, Muslims, and Christians? Why is nobody wondering what kind of agenda this guy had?”