CBS News and Dan Rather have been taking a beating over the use of the forged documents, but USA Today has a lot to explain and heads should roll there, too. It also received and publicized the phony documents from Bill Burkett, assuming they were authentic. It used Burkett as a confidential source and its standards for “verifying” the documents turn out to be even worse than those of CBS News!
On September 9, one day after the 60 Minutes story aired, USA Today was out with its own story under the headline, “Guard commander’s memos criticize Bush,” by Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard.
The story was based on “newly disclosed documents,” the paper claimed. It said “the memos” were “obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program 60 Minutes?” The paper went on to say that White House communications director Dan Bartlett “did not dispute the documents’ authenticity.”
So USA Today expected the White House to do the job of verifying or debunking the documents. This was a critical mistake also made by CBS news. Obviously, the White House did not have enough time to do that. And it’s not the administration’s job to research stories for the Big Media. The White House took the defensible position that it was assuming the documents were valid because they had been supplied by a “reputable” news organization. The White House didn’t think Dan Rather would sink so low as to pawn off phony documents as legitimate.
Not only did USA Today make the same mistake as CBS News, but the newspaper’s editors used the CBS News broadcast of the story as further proof that they were somehow valid. Hence, USA Today made two critical mistakes. Its “fact-checking” was even worse than CBS News, which at least went through the motions of appearing to consult some “experts” about the documents’ validity.
USA Today now acknowledges that its reporter Dave Moniz met with Burkett shortly after the 60 Minutes program aired. USA Today says Moniz “had dealt with” Burkett “on previous stories related to the National Guard” and that Burkett gave Moniz “copies of the same documents he gave CBS.”
USA Today editors say they ran with the story about the memos because they chose to “rely in part on 60 Minutes’ reporting” and on Bartlett’s decision not to immediately contest the documents. But USA Today tried to defend the documents, after doubts were being raised, by insisting that the signatures on the disputed memos “matched those on many of Bush’s publicly released records.” This was obviously not true.
Now that Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz is raising questions about USA Today’s role, USA Today Executive Editor John Hillkirk is telling him that, “We never did vouch for the documents’ authenticity,” as if that constitutes a defense of the story.
The bottom line is that USA Today is caught up in the same scandal that is threatening the careers of Dan Rather, producer Mary Mapes and CBS News President Andrew Heyward.
A September 21 USA Today story by Dave Moniz, Jim Drinkard and Kevin Johnson, published under the headline, “Texan Has Made Allegations for Years,” admitted that Burkett “has acknowledged lying to CBS and USA Today about where he obtained the questionable documents allegedly written by Bush’s Guard commander.” The story said that the paper had been investigating Burkett’s allegations since 2002.
After investing this much time and effort in Burkett, however, the paper clearly had not seen through his lies and deceptions in time to question the phony documents. It looks like USA Today, like CBS News, wanted to believe the allegations against Bush, no matter what the evidence showed.
Incredibly, however, in another September 21 story, USA Today reporter Peter Johnson cited the CBS scandal as another in a series of cases of “flawed stories, lying reporters or both.” He admitted that USA Today was one of those cases, having suffered a major blow to its credibility when its reporter Jack Kelley was caught committing massive fabrications. But he didn’t note that USA Today was suffering a black eye in the phony documents scandal with its own disgraceful conduct.
The fact that USA Today was scooped with the phony story doesn’t get the paper off the hook. USA Today compounded Dan Rather’s error by using the appearance of the documents on CBS News as a reason to go forward. It was bad enough that the paper used Burkett as a confidential source. But basing stories in USA Today on the work of Dan Rather and CBS News when the paper on its own had been working with Burkett for two years? USA Today editor Ken Paulsen has some explaining to do.