USA Today Reporter Resigns
Friday, May 6, 2005
A USA Today Pentagon correspondent, Tom Squitieri, resigned under pressure yesterday after the paper learned he had lifted quotes from another newspaper for a front-page story and used several other quotes, without attributing them to other publications, that were cut during editing.
In a March 28 piece on the Army falling behind in ordering armored Humvees for Iraq, Squitieri quoted Brian Hart of Bedford, Mass., whose son was killed in the war. The same quote appeared, word for word, in the Indianapolis Star in May 2004:
"My son called me the week before he was killed. He said they were getting shot at all the time. They were in unarmored Humvees and were out there exposed to the fire. He was concerned they were going to get hit. He was literally whispering this into the phone to me. He was right. That's how he died."
Squitieri also used a three-sentence quote from Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) -- about the Pentagon having "consistently underestimated" the need for more armored Humvees -- that had appeared in the same piece in the Star, which like USA Today is a Gannett paper.
"This is a clear violation of our sources and attribution policy, and when that happens, a reporter has to leave the paper," Editor Ken Paulson said. "When you see a pattern of misuse of quotes, you have to take steps."
But Squitieri's lawyer, Joseph Cammarata, said his client spoke to all the sources or their spokesmen, even though he ended up using the old quotes. "Tom spoke to each of these people directly, verified what the sound bite was in the past and sought their permission to use it," Cammarata said. "There was nothing inaccurate about it. . . . The suggestion that there was a pattern of misuse of quotes is not true."
Asked about this, Paulson called it "an interesting defense" and said Squitieri had apologized to him and the staff, and had acknowledged being careless with the stories in question. He said editors found six more quotes from other publications in earlier drafts of Squitieri stories in March that did not make it into the paper, either because they were cut for space or Squitieri had deleted them from the final version.
Cammarata said Squitieri walked into yesterday's meeting with Paulson with a resignation letter in his pocket. He said Squitieri decided to quit because he recognized that the editors felt he had made "a mistake" and that their future relationship would be "strained." But he also confirmed that Paulson had told Squitieri that "you can't continue to be here."
An award-winning, 16-year veteran who has reported for USA Today from around the world, Squitieri was an outspoken critic of Jack Kelley, the star correspondent ousted last year and later found to have fabricated parts of at least 20 stories over more than a decade. Richard Klein, a former Clinton administration official and friend of Squitieri, said the reporter has long felt that management has been "hostile" toward him because of his role in complaining about Kelley's work. "He felt they looked at him as a trouble-maker and a problem in the newsroom," Klein said.
Unlike Kelley, who both fabricated material and plagiarized other newspapers, Squitieri has not been accused of making anything up. But Paulson has taken a strict approach to ethics since he was named last year to succeed Karen Jurgensen, who was forced out when an outside panel found that a "virus of fear" in the newsroom had prevented top editors from learning of Kelley's fabrications earlier.
"Since the days of Jack Kelley, we have a system," Paulson said. "Whenever anybody raises questions about the credibility of our report or the conduct of our staff, we take a look at it."
The inquiry began after a copy editor found a sentence in Squitieri's Humvee story in March that was almost identical to one from the Web site InsidetheArmy.com. The editor deleted the sentence and reported the finding to Adele Crowe, the paper's standards editor -- a position created in the wake of the Kelley debacle -- who began an examination of Squitieri's work. The single sentence was "enough to raise suspicion," Paulson said.
Three days later, Star Editor Dennis Ryerson wrote Paulson about the quotes ripped off from his paper's 2004 story. "I did what I think editors ought to do in these kinds of situations, something we don't like to do," Ryerson said. He said Paulson apologized to him.
Squitieri enjoys a "stellar reputation," Cammarata said, and has won several awards for his work abroad from the Overseas Press Club and White House Correspondents Association. He said that Squitieri was wounded in Sarajevo when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a truck he was riding in, and that weeks later he was beaten up by a mob in Haiti.
Despite the high-profile cases involving Kelley and Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who among other things plagiarized stories involving two parents whose sons were killed in Iraq, journalists continue to use other people's work without attribution. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month ousted reporter Al Levine for stealing from two other papers comments by fans and area residents at two Daytona 500 races.
Squitieri, a frequent guest on MSNBC programs such as "Countdown," has written hundreds of stories about Iraq. He also wrote occasionally about politics and covered many of the Clinton White House scandals. Squitieri is well regarded by colleagues and other Pentagon reporters and viewed as a sharp questioner of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
His last story, written with a colleague about the United States trying to repair the damage from the Abu Ghraib scandal, appeared last week.
In an interview last year, Squitieri said he had "questioned the veracity" of some of Kelley's stories during the 1999 war in Yugoslavia. But, Squitieri said, his warnings were "rebuffed by editors. . . . I didn't get the idea people were interested in me bringing anything up."
Asked about the mood surrounding Squitieri's ouster, Paulson said: "This is not a happy ending for anybody, but it's a constructive outcome."