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Second USA Today Editor Resigns Amid Scandal

Times Staff Writer

A second high-ranking editor at USA Today resigned on Thursday, the same day that the paper published a scathing analysis of an ethics scandal, involving a star reporter, that identified significant deficiencies in the culture and leadership of its newsroom.

The resignation of Hal Ritter, the managing editor for news, marked a continuing shake-up in the management ranks of the nation’s largest-selling newspaper. The paper’s top editor, Karen Jurgensen, announced Tuesday she had stepped down.

A third manager, Brian Gallagher, the paper’s executive editor, told staffers on Thursday that he did not expect to remain in his current post once a replacement for Jurgensen is named. That decision is expected no later than next week, and possibly as early as today. The search is focused on editors who already work for Gannett Co., USA Today’s corporate parent.

The upheaval stems from a searing internal investigation into the work of the paper’s onetime ace foreign correspondent, Jack Kelley, who resigned under pressure in January.

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Last month, the newspaper documented a decade-long stretch of journalistic sins it said Kelley had committed, including a phony tale about a drowned Cuban woman who later turned up alive.

Ultimately, a team of his former colleagues assigned to investigate his work concluded that during his 21 years at the paper, Kelley had fabricated parts of at least 20 stories and had lifted at least a hundred passages from other publications.

In a statement issued through his lawyer Wednesday and published by his former paper Thursday, Kelley -- for the first time since the scandal broke -- acknowledged making “a number of serious mistakes.... I can only offer my sincere apology to those I have let down.”

But as startling as his breaches of trust were, the debacle has also raised questions about how Kelley was able to operate unfettered without his editors catching on to his many deceits.

On Thursday, the paper published an accounting by three veteran newspaper executives hired by publisher Craig Moon to evaluate the mess. The article described the 28-page document as “an extraordinary public indictment of the newspaper’s slowness to investigate, document and stop Kelley’s transgressions.”

Among other problems, the report cited lax editing and newsroom leadership, a lack of staff communication, a star system and inconsistent rules on using anonymous sources.

The editors who wrote the report concluded that a “culture of fear” was “alive and sick in the news section.” As managing editor for news since 1995, Ritter, who had worked at USA Today since it was founded in 1982, was the leader of that section.

“I don’t think anyone could possibly be more upset about the Kelley mess than I am,” Ritter, 52, said in an e-mail distributed to the staff. “My departure will make it easier for my colleagues in news to continue the job of making the newspaper even greater.” He did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

Ritter’s departure and Gallagher’s announcement that he too would leave left staffers at the paper’s newsroom in McLean, Va., “shell-shocked,” according to one reporter.

The scandal has evoked comparisons with the case of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, whose serial fabrications led to the ouster of Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd last June.

But while Blair was a young reporter, Kelley was a veteran news hound, often a public voice speaking for the paper, giving it national and international cachet.

Ultimately, that led to his and his managers’ undoing -- because, said a high-ranking national media observer familiar with the USA Today investigation who requested anonymity, “when signals came from below about Kelley, management was not predisposed to be watchful.”

The twin ethics lapses have also fueled a debate among editors around the country about the level of the public’s trust in newspapers, the source of pressures on journalists to succeed, and the ability of newspaper managers to effectively control the process.

The common story line in the Kelley and Blair affairs is “a kind of go-go world in journalism where success speaks for itself, regardless of how you gain it,” said Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

“But the question is: ‘Can editors really be captains of a ship and know everything that’s going on in the minds of their sailors?’ ” Schell mused.

He was not optimistic: “We have trouble enough as parents knowing what our kids are up to,” he said.

Schell and other journalism professors said they believed that the USA Today departures, at the least, showed that top managers at the paper felt a degree of responsibility and a willingness to shoulder the blame for the acts of their subordinates, illustrating what Schell described as a “moral compass” still at play in at least some newsrooms.

“So here people were saying at USA Today, ‘There’s a problem with the system, and we’re part of the system, so we’ll move on in order for this organism to survive,’ ” said Marty Kaplan, associate dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. “It’s a sad but kind of ennobling thing.”

Times staff writer Josh Getlin in New York contributed to this report.


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