Friday, August 26, 2005

War, lies and newsprint

Via that Mojo-laden DED: The students at SIU's Carbondale campus, especially the staff on the newspaper The Daily Egyptian were hit hard by the death of a soldier last week. Over a two year period, they had come to know Sgt. Dan Kennings and his sweet little daughter Kodee. Introduced to the Daily Egyptian by a letter then 7-year old Kodee wrote about how anti-war protests upset her since her father was a soldier deployed in Iraq, student reporter Michael Brenner contacted the little girl to find out more.

The story appeared in the Daily Egyptian on May 6, 2003, detailing an 8-year-old's struggles saying goodbye to her father, who was shipping off to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Kodee, according to the story, had lost her mother years earlier, so Kennings was her only blood relative.

"I don't have a mom," Kodee was quoted saying in the newspaper story. "If he died, I don't have anywhere to go."

Upon Kennings' departure, Kodee came under the care of a young woman named Colleen Hastings, the wife of Kennings' adoptive brother. Outgoing and affable, she forged a friendship with Brenner and, he says, seemed to think the attention was helping keep Kodee's mind off her dad.

Brenner, then the editor of the paper, started publishing unedited notes that Kodee would write about her dad, or about things happening in her life.

Last week, the DE newsroom was crushed by news that Sgt. Dan Kennings has been killed in Iraq and the little girl they'd established personal bonds with was now an orphan. The Chicago Tribune was so interested in the story, they went to Carbondale to learn more

Over seven days of reporting, the Tribune learned the real story, one of elaborate fabrications and lies intricately spread out over two years. There is no soldier named Dan Kennings. The charming girl people came to know as Kodee Kennings is someone else entirely, a child from an out-of-state family led to believe she was playing a part in a documentary about a soldier.

Using role players, including an employee of a local Christian radio station, the woman at the center of the hoax spun a remarkable wartime tale so compelling it grabbed the hearts of young journalists, university faculty members and readers, and left them blind to the possibility it could all be a ruse. There appears never to have been a monetary motive. In fact, the reasons behind all the lies remain unclear.

The DE, it seems, was duped.

Jamie Reynolds, the woman at the center of the "story", was a broadcast journalism major at SIU who graduated in 2004. She claims the fabrication was all Michael Brenner's idea, something that was done to help with the difficulties he was having in his career.

"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."

She also said she fell in love with Brenner, making it that much harder for her to stop the lie.

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."

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