You Can Fool All of the People Some of the Time

In 1989 Tribune investigative reporter Bill Recktenwald took a call from the daughter of Vito Marzullo, a 91-year-old former alderman. The Tribune had just published Marzullo’s obituary, but in the background Recktenwald could hear him cackling, “Tell ’em I’m still alive!” Two years later the Tribune ran a story about a Green Beret from Palos Hills who’d parachuted behind Iraqi lines on a secret mission during the gulf war. A lot of callers questioned the story, and an editor told Recktenwald to check into it. “It took me five minutes to find out this guy was not in the army,” he says.

These things happen. In the spring of 2003 sports editor Michael Brenner of the Daily Egyptian of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale invited an eight-year-old girl who’d written a fan letter to stop by for a visit. Dressed in army fatigues, little Kodee Kennings arrived with her “guardian” from nearby Marion, Colleen Hastings, who told a touching tale: Kodee’s mom was dead, and her dad had gone off to fight in Iraq. The story Brenner wrote about Kodee was too vivid–he described Sergeant Dan Kennings’s heart-wrenching farewell at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as though he’d been there to see it. And even though Brenner had only one grown-up source–Colleen–he didn’t double-check what she told him with the Department of Defense.

For obvious reasons Recktenwald, who now teaches journalism at SIU, has spent some time lately recalling those old Tribune mistakes. Everything that went wrong then went wrong in the Kodee Kennings hoax–and a lot more.

In the fall of 2003 Brenner became editor of the Egyptian, and Kodee’s colorfully misspelled letters to the paper were turned into a popular column; the little girl who longed for her warrior father was a voice of the war. “Dear Mr. Presadent,” she wrote. “I’m rily mad at you and you make my hart hurt. I don’t think your doing a very good job. You keep sending soldiers to Iraq and it’s not fair. Do you have a soldier of your own in Irak? Why can’t our soldiers come home?” Kodee and Colleen dropped by the Egyptian every few weeks, and the girl often called; staffers passed the phone around, and she talked for hours.

If you’ve been reading the Tribune in recent days you know how this story comes out. Colleen let it be known that Dan Kennings had died in Iraq and there’d be a memorial service August 20. Alerted by Recktenwald to this human drama, the Tribune sent a reporter to cover it. But he says that 1991 Green Beret story taught the Tribune a lesson. As a matter of routine, the Tribune tried to confirm the death with the Depart-ment of Defense. It couldn’t. Recktenwald tried to help the Egyptian confirm it by exchanging e-mail with someone he knew in Baghdad. Eventually that contact concluded: “The facts of his death are clear that he did not die here. His life is a question now.”

There was no Colleen Hastings. She was actually Jaimie Reynolds, a radio-TV major who graduated from SIU in 2004. It seems beyond belief that one journalism student could have fooled so many other journalism students for so long, but Recktenwald says the communications and media arts building is huge, and the radio-TV studios and the newspaper office are so far apart that the Egyptian editors probably never saw her. One Egyptian ad worker did run into “Colleen” in another part of the building and asked what she was doing. Reynolds laughed and replied, “Oh, you have me mixed up with my twin sister.”

There was no Kodee Kennings either. She was actually Caitlin Hadley, the daughter of a minister in Montpelier, Indiana. And there was no Dan Kennings. The man who occasionally portrayed him–such as during a visit to the Egyptian while he was supposedly home for special training–was actually Patrick Trovillion, a nurse from Vienna, Illinois. He and Hadley and Hadley’s parents have tried to explain to reporters that Reynolds told them she was making some kind of movie with hidden mikes and cameras and that they believed her. Those letters and phone calls from “Kodee” to the Egyptian newsroom? Hadley’s parents say it wasn’t their daughter who made them.

The paper admits all in a statement on its Web site, “DE duped in hoax.” It’s posted every last word of its Kodee Kennings coverage, and to read those 16 stories now is to marvel at human credulity.

Even Moustafa “Mous” Ayad believed. Born in Egypt, Ayad lived in Kuwait until 1991, when he was ten. Two days before Iraq invaded, the family left on a vacation to Disney World, and they didn’t go back. Ayad wound up an SIU journalism student and staffer at the Egyptian, where he had no use for Kodee. “We were allowing all these misspellings, and everybody was ‘Oh, it’s so cute,'” he says. “But it wasn’t cute to anybody in the newsroom who had any respect for the opinion pages. It was only cute to anyone smitten by her charm.”

Ayad says Kodee would come around with Colleen every couple of weeks to toss a football with Brenner and fire off her Nerf gun in the newsroom, where a banner on a wall says, “If your mother says she loves you check it out.” The horseplay drove Ayad nuts. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to write a story and go home and study for a test. I don’t have time for a nine-year-old.'”

When Ayad became editor of the Egyptian in the fall of 2004 he had big plans: he wanted the paper to focus on the elections and to dig into a potentially scandalous audit of the university. “I wanted to change the way this newspaper worked, and the last thing on my mind was what little Kodee Kennings was going through.” He promptly banished her from its pages–an unpopular decision. “I took a lot of heat from readers. I got hate mail.”

He’d been affected by war himself, but though he’s sure it makes him sound “heartless and cold,” he says, “I didn’t identify with her at all.” Yet he didn’t doubt her story, and he didn’t doubt Dan Kennings when he met him. “I said, ‘How much Arabic do you know?’ And he said the Arabic word for ‘stop’–qif–and I was, ‘Oh, this guy knows a little Arabic.'” (Ayad knew so little himself that as a career move he’d gone back to Cairo one summer to study it.)

Now a reporter in Pittsburgh, Ayad points out that none of today’s Egyptian editors were there when Kodee was. Neither was Eric Fidler, the new faculty managing editor. Fidler says that in more than 20 years as a reporter for the AP and various papers he never saw a story so bizarre. Like Recktenwald and Ayad, he doesn’t believe Brenner was in on the plot, though Reynolds has said she was trying to help him further his career. Beyond that, Fidler’s at a loss.

But when the truth came out, he says, “I sent Mous an e-mail saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.'”

Credit Report

Thomas Ryan was known as a tough man in a tough job–superintendent of the Sauk Village school district, one of the poorest in the state. His zero-tolerance discipline policy dragged the district into lawsuits, but he was backed by his board and honored by his peers. He sat on the governor’s Education Accountability Task Force. He sat on the board of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

This March the Daily Southtown reported that an audit of the 2003-’04 school year discovered that school funds were used to buy cabinets for Ryan’s home and insurance for his car and to cover more than $6,000 of a daughter’s college tuition. Ryan dismissed the irregularities as honest mistakes, the Southtown reported, and despite the audit the school board gave him a new contract with a 9 percent raise.

The Southtown’s education writer, Linda Lutton, kept poking around. She reported finding a dozen more tuition checks drawn on school funds, and after-school-program money that had paid for Blackhawks tickets, graduation gifts for Ryan’s three daughters, and a DJ for a staff party.

When Cook County state’s attorney Richard Devine personally announced Ryan’s indictment on August 23, he said, “It is the worst case of financial fraud by a public official I have seen in my nearly nine years as state’s attorney.” Ryan was accused of stealing more than $100,000 from the district (some $70,000 of which went to his daughters’ colleges), of awarding a buddy a $72,000 no-bid lighting contract, of demanding kickbacks from employees paid overtime, and of intimidating employees into doctoring records to cover his tracks. “He also milked the milk fund, stole library fees, and made off with book fees,” said Devine. “The financial havoc he wrought in the district will be felt for years.”

On August 16 a raid of Ryan’s home in Orland Park netted some $730,000 in cash stashed there. The same day the former school board president–a Ryan ally who’d resigned in late July–was indicted for theft, misapplication of funds, and official misconduct.

By that time other papers had begun taking notice of the scandal. The Sun-Times and Tribune both covered Devine’s press conference. But until she moved to Mexico in July, Lutton worked the story pretty much alone.

Devine praised the Southtown for its work, and assistant state’s attorney Scott Cassidy, who led the investigation, told me, “They did a wonderful piece of journalism.”

That’s not what other papers said. The occasional pettiness of newspapers can take your breath away, especially big papers that treat small papers’ stories as if they don’t exist. The AP account of Ryan’s indictment cited the Southtown, but neither of the downtown dailies did, even though the Sun-Times and the Southtown are both Hollinger papers.

I asked Phil Jurik, who runs the Tribune’s Orland Park bureau, why his bureau didn’t touch the Ryan story until July. “I just don’t think I’m going to go there,” he said. But he conceded, “Probably most papers don’t do a good enough job of giving each other credit.” Not content with giving the Southtown no credit, the Tribune reported that Devine’s office swung into action after getting a letter from the state board of education.

Lutton e-mailed me, “The only reason the state board did ANYTHING at all–and all they did was pass on the audit I uncovered–was because I was all over them asking, ‘What is the state board going to DO about this???'”

Lutton said the Tribune had no reason to mention her by name. “But at least they could have said that ‘newspaper reports’ sparked the investigation.”

Ray Nordstrand, 1932-2005

WFMT’s vernacular quality made the station an easy habit to get into. It exuded comfortable midwestern intelligence; the brow was high but seldom arched. Ray Nordstrand, who spent 52 years there in one capacity or another, died last week, and when the station played highlights of his old Midnight Specials, I heard the plain, awkward voice of a Jack Brickhouse with different enthusiasms.

WFMT was largely Nordstrand’s creation, as was Chicago magazine, which began as the station’s program guide. Ron Dorfman, an editor who left the magazine in the late 70s because of an expose Nordstrand wouldn’t run, gives Nordstrand credit for “real entrepreneurial genius.” He says Nordstrand managed to persuade the audience, staff, and advertisers of WFMT and Chicago “that they were, for the most part, a mutually respectful community, all participating in the same high-minded enterprise.”

Nordstrand was more comfortable as a champion of culture than of muckraking journalism, but by the late 80s staffers at both places felt his leadership was too complacent. His board eventually stripped him of his executive authority and sold the magazine, and WFMT entered a time of turmoil, from which it was slow to emerge. “Ray was curiously unbitter about the raw deal he’d received,” remembers Tony Judge, WFMT’s sales manager until he was fired in a 1990 bloodletting. Nordstrand even continued to work for the station as a consultant. If he ever wondered why so many good things end so badly, he must have decided they don’t need to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Thomas/The Southern.