August 11, 2005, - 8:32 am

Jack Kelley/Jayson Blair Revisited: USA Today Runs Another Phony Story

By Debbie Schlussel
You’d think USA Today learned after the Jack Kelley fiasco. Kelley, USA Today’s star investigative reporter, made up multiple stories out of wholecloth and/or plagiarized true ones, a la Jayson Blair. After a long reluctance by Gannett, the paper was forced to investigate after Kelley made up a militant Israeli settler who described plans to kill Arabs. The settler never existed–because, like most of his stories, that one was a fake.
Now, USA Today reporter Stephanie Armour wrote a full-page story in Monday’s paper profiling Larry Twombly, alleged CEO of a soda company, Hat Trick Beverages. Armour verified almost nothing in the story she reported. And it all turned out to be phony, including the existence of Hat Trick as a company, and the millions in soda sales Armour reported.
In today’s USA Today, Armour writes that most of the details in her piece were false–but she accepts NONE of the blame, pimping it off on Twombly’s publicist. In fact, she doesn’t even reference that she was the author of the original full-page set of lies.
Armour reported that Twombly was a Harvard grad, played hockey for the Crimson, was drafted by the NHL’s Boston Bruins, and played minor league hockey with the AHL’s Providence Bruins–all facts easily checked. But Stephanie Armour did not check them. Instead, she printed them as fact. But none of them were true. I wondered, being a college and pro hockey enthusiast (and former sports agent), why I never heard of Twombly.
Note to Stephanie: Publicists lie. They embellish, exaggerate, and, yes, even make things up. Note #2 to Stephanie: Reporters are supposed to verify facts that publicists feed them. When they don’t, it is their fault–NOT the publicists’, who–it is no revelation–lie for a living.
If USA Today is true to its new, revised commitment to accuracy in the post-Jack Kelley era (apparently, the fact-checking by editors is still non-existent), the paper will fire Ms. Armour immediately. They fired Kelley (after much resistance to doing so) and fired political correspondent Tom Squiteri for plagiarizing.
Let’s see if the female reporters at USA Today get equal treatment. If they do, Armour will be gone by day’s end. (Ditto for her editors.)
I’m not holding my breath.
Apparently, something is in the water at Gannett. A few months ago, I reported on Detroit News (then owned by Gannett and sold recently) “star” reporter David Shepardson’s made-up article–completely un-fact-checked, a la Armour–and he’s still working there, too.

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3 Responses

I love the headline of the article you linked, it said his claims were “questioned.” Uh huh.
Oh, and Debbie, I was just joking about hockey being a stupid sport, those North Frenchies got me fired up. To prove it, you, me, and Preston of Six Meat Buffet can take in a Predators vs. Dead Wings game when you make your Nashville, TN road trip.

Jeff_W on August 11, 2005 at 9:23 am

I helped expose this fraud. At least USA Today followed up in print. They could have just let it go pretty easily.
It is amazing that they let that they ran the first story without any verification. It took me about 5 minutes to confirm he never stepped foot in a classroom at Harvard.

ExposeBuzzy on August 13, 2005 at 8:38 pm

From your column: “And it all turned out to be phony, including the existence of Hat Trick as a company, and the millions in soda sales Armour reported.”
I don’t believe the existence of the company or its sales have ever been directly refuted. The original article had the site of the company’s registration wrong but apparently there is a Hat Trick Beverage somewhere because its drinks are being sold in certain establishments. As far as sales go, the original article took Twombly’s word for it, as was evident to me when I first read it, and though the numbers have not been substantiated they haven’t been directly refuted either (though you’d perhaps be crazy to believe Twombly now given all that he did allegedly misrepresent). But I agree that USAToday dropped the ball in a big way by not verifying their story before disseminating it. No doubt some people who ran out and bought stock in Twombly’s enterprise based on that article are now wishing they hadn’t.
I think you are appropriately hard on Stephanie Armour but I don’t think you are hard enough on the PR firm. I think the PR firm’s duty to provide accurate information regarding verifiable facts ought to be as rigorous as the reporter’s duty is to report and check those facts.

Lars on September 16, 2005 at 12:42 pm

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