26 August 2005

The Great Kodee Caper: College Journalism imitates the MSM

In 2003 and 2004, the Daily Egyptian student newspaper at Southern Illinois University Carbondale periodically ran a story or opinion piece about little Kodee Kennings, a local girl whose dad was deployed in Iraq. People loved plucky little Kodee and sympathized with how much she wanted her dad back home. Some opinion columnists used her as a poster child for what the eeevil Bush was doing to families everywhere.
Today (August 26, 2005) the Daily Egyptian's front page story is a retraction or every story that ever mentioned Kodee and her 101st Airborne dad, and an apology to the readers: it turns out that Kodee and her soldier dad don't exist. A woman got a child and some guy to impersonate them, and the paper never fact-checked her until she claimed the soldier had died in Iraq. At that point, an SIUC journalism professor put in a tip to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune reporter finally bothered to call the 101st Airborne to be told there never was a soldier with the name Dan Kennings.

Here are some outtakes:
"American refugee" news story by Michael Brenner, which introduced Kodee, May 6, 2003:

Kennings is extremely sensitive compared to the typical American stereotype of soldiers. He is not afraid to cry, does not mind being sentimental and writes poems about his daughter.

All this needs to be hidden from those he fights with, though, at the risk of ridicule. The teddy bear Kodee gave him that said "daddy's girl" is kept out of sight, and Kodee said she understands.

"He keeps it in his bag because the other soldiers might make fun of him," Kodee explained.

"There are monsters under my bed" by "Kodee" Nov 13, 2003:

You know what? Theres monstars under my bed. They come out when it's dark in there. ...

My dad use to make the monstirs run away becus he would use his soldier voys. I hate when he yells at me in his soldier voys and so do the monstirs. After he did that they would leve me aloan.

I miss my dad. When he kills all the bad guys Air Force One will bring him home. I'm tired of wateing.

Jack (Piatt) has a soldier voys. He sounds like my dad. Sometimes he yells at me and it sucks. Jack was a soldier and he was good at his job. Sometimes I wish my dad wasn't so good at his job. Then he could come home faster. He needs to yell at the monstirs to make them go away.

"Degrading Political Ads Need to Stop" LeNie Adolphson opinion column, Dec 2, 2003

Many Iraqis who have been interviewed by the BBC have stated we didn't like Saddam and we are glad he is gone, plus we appreciate the help, but now we want the Americans to leave too. An Iraqi cleric has also requested the occupation end immediately. Children such as Kodee Kennings want their parents home NOW. Are all of these people sympathetic to terrorism because they see Iraq is a debacle?

"My Thanksgiving Break" by "Kodee" December 3, 2003

I sent my dad a chrismas tree and presants to all his soldiers. My dad dosnt get to come home until every one gets to come home becase the goverment is short a letter. He has a tree and lights and when chrismas comes Santa wont forget him. Its red white an blue like my tree. I'm going to remind Santa that there is a war and not to forget deployed soldiers. Does Santa have the power to declare a sese fire? Maybe he knws Nato and can talk to him abot stoping the war. Maybe Nato can make the presadent bring the soldiers home. Some body has to be the presadents boss.


Today's (Aug 25 2005) Daily Egyptian lists all the retracted articles. "My Thanksgiving Break" seems to have been omitted. You can't get to these articles online anymore -- you get "access denied," but they can still be read in Google cache.
Here are the original links as text and clickable links to the cached versions:
American Refugee

There are monsters under my bed

Degrading political ads need to stop

My Thanksgiving Break

The articles that were "access denied" are available again at their original DE web addresses. I probably just hit them initially while the webmaster was putting on the retractions that are now at the top. This is the right thing to do, and I compliment the DE on their straightforwardness.
An interview with Michael Brenner, the journalism student who wrote "American Refugee," the story that introduced "Kodee," was published in the Southern Ilinoisan today. In it, he recounts the chronology and says he doesn't realize he was duped until a Chicago Tribune reporter told him the woman who perpetrated the hoax has originally met him in a bar before this all started.
He didn't even remember the first time he met her until a reporter reminded him? Or does he dispute that he met her in a bar? The article doesn't say he disputes it.
He also claimed he quit his first job after college and moved back to the area in part to be closer to a 9 or 10 year old girl.
Brenner recently quit his job as a sportswriter with the East Oregonian, a job he landed shortly after donning his gown and receiving his diploma in the December 2004 SIUC graduation ceremonies.

He said he left the Oregon job after only a few months because he wanted to spend time with his family in Illinois - and with the girl he said he had known as "Kodee Kennings."

Doesn't ring true to me. If it is true, it's inappropriate for a man in his 20s to quit a job and move to be closer to a 10 year old girl who isn't related to him.
It all started when the Daily Egyptian received a letter to the editor from a young girl purporting to be Kodee Kennings, who indicated she was the daughter of a soldier fighting in Iraq.

"At the end of the first Kodee letter, it said something like, 'We love your Michael Brenner'," Brenner said, explaining why the Voices editor of the student newspaper had called the first Kodee letter to his attention.

What a coincidence.
The article goes on to say, "At the time Brenner was a sportswriter with the Daily Egyptian."
Jaimie Reynolds, who posed as "Kodee's" guardian Colleen, says she did it all for him: "Brenner, who went on to serve one semester as editor-in-chief at the Daily Egyptian, wanted to get his byline in a section of the paper other than sports.
Reynolds alleged that the scheme was Brenner's idea. She also said she fell in love with Brenner, making it that much harder for her to stop the lie."

"Mike is my best friend," she said. "In the last couple of years, he's had a hard time with his career. He asked me if I would help him out. I said I would. It just got a little bigger than he told me it would. I went with it because supposedly he was my best friend. This needs to be over with. I don't want to lie anymore. He just wouldn't let it go."

(What does she mean, "in the last couple of years he has had a hard time with his career"? He graduated in 2004, and while she was "helping him out" he was a student. Can you even be said to already have a career while you are a student preparing for the career you are planning to have?)
"Brenner denied Reynolds' accusation and said her claims were outrageous."

"Jesus Christ, that is completely not true," Brenner said when he heard about the allegations. "Obviously, she is making that up. I swear I'm telling the truth. The last two years of my life, I don't know what to believe. It's ridiculous. I feel stabbed in the back. They had an elaborate hoax. I'm telling the truth."

Sigh. Whatever.
There is more behind this story, but the issue of who is unstable and who is naive is something that I encourage everyone to work out in private. We don't need to be an audience for that.
What needs to be worked out in public is what's being taught, and not taught, at journalism school.
Aside from the essential importance of fact-checking, student need to be taught not to write as if they were on-scene when they were not:
Following is an excerpt from Brenner's Daily Egyptian story:
"In an attempt to delay his departure, Kodee swiped his helmet and refused to let go, saying he could not leave without his helmet.
Still in tears, Kennings took his helmet back from his 8-year-old daughter, but he still could not convince her he had to go. She refused to let go of his arms, and pleaded with her father.
"Please don't leave," Kodee begged. "I'll be good if you stay. I won't get in trouble."
During the Friday interview, Brenner defended the style of writing he had used in the story.
"It was the style going around the newsroom at the time," Brenner said.
But he also admitted Friday, it was "something I would have changed," looking back on it now.

"It was the style going around the newsroom at the time" to be deceptive? And you justify your own deceptive writing by saying everyone else was doing it too? That's so logical and ethical, exactly what we expect of journalists. /sarc Keep in mind people, that he's no longer a student. He graduated in 2004 and is now a professional , so whatever j-school was going to teach him, he would have already learned. Logic and a sense of shame perhaps are not in the curriculum, but maybe that is the responsibility of parents anyhow.