Accuracy in Media

On April 14, AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid attended the annual meeting of Gannett Co., parent of USA Today, to confront top executives and editors about USA Today’s role in the CBS forged-documents scandal known as Memogate.

USA Today editor Ken Paulson used the occasion to acknowledge that he had received over 200 postcards from AIM members protesting the paper’s failure to properly address its role in the scandal. While Paulson was cordial and open to some extent about the problems at his paper, he tried to dismiss the controversy by claiming that his reporters had subsequently examined the Memogate scandal in detail. He also suggested that people around the country?except for AIM members?didn’t really care about it.

Perhaps this is because the rest of the media haven’t focused the kind of attention on USA Today’s misdeeds that they did on those of CBS. Yet USA Today is the most-read newspaper in the U.S., with a circulation of over 2 million.

Gannett chairman Douglas McCorkindale certainly didn’t want to address the issue. “You’re out of order,” he said to Kincaid at one point. He quickly adjourned the annual meeting after Kincaid had completed his second round of questions and comments on the matter. 

CBS Fallout

Remember that four people were fired or forced to resign from CBS News as a result of 60 Minutes using forged documents during the presidential campaign to try to discredit President Bush’s National Guard service. But USA Today received and publicized the same phony documents from the CBS source, Bill Burkett, also assuming they were authentic. It used Burkett as a confidential source and its standards for “verifying” the documents turned out to be even worse than those of CBS News! On September 9, one day after the 60 Minutes Wednesday 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?” It did not reveal in that story that Burkett was the source.

When doubts were raised about the documents, USA Today acknowledged that its reporter, Dave Moniz, met with Burkett shortly after the 60 Minutes program aired. USA Today acknowledged that 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 White House official Dan Bartlett’s decision not to immediately contest them (Bartlett wasn’t given enough time to review or refute them).

When Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz raised questions about USA Today’s role, USA Today Executive Editor John Hillkirk told him that “We never did vouch for the documents’ authenticity,” as if that constitutes a defense of the story.

The Same CBS Source

Clearly, 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 it was way out of line to base a story 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. This was a startling way of “verifying” a story.

This is why AIM has been saying for months that USA Today editor Ken Paulson has some explaining to do, and that an investigation was warranted.

The annual meeting, attended by about 100 people, was presided over by Douglas McCorkindale, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Gannett. McCorkindale had positive news about the company’s financial success and showed a video highlighting its profitability and commitment to excellence in journalism. Audience members were limited to three minutes per statement or question.

The following is the exchange:

Kincaid: “Thank you Mr. Chairman. My name is Cliff Kincaid with Accuracy in Media. I want to congratulate you on the success of this company. You are clearly making a lot of money, on the Fortune 500 list. The future looks bright. But what kind of price tag do you put on credibility, on what your video referred to as your commitment to excellence in journalism? By way of introduction, I want to congratulate one of your board members, Mr. [Louis D.] Boccardi, for the excellent job he did on the panel investigating the CBS Memogate scandal. And that is connected directly to the question I want to put to you. I’m going to leave you off the hook for the time being because I know a year ago you had to face a lot of questions about the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today. For those who don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, he was the USA Today reporter who was responsible for a lot of fabrications and fakery under the noses of USA Today editors. And Mr. Ken Paulson was brought in to shake things up and put USA Today on a new path of credibility and devotion to excellence in journalism.

“Now our group, Accuracy in Media, has been sending postcards to Mr. Paulson, you Mr. Chairman and Mr. Boccardi to come to grips with a scandal that hit your paper in the immediate wake of the CBS Memogate story. To put it bluntly to Mr. Paulson, to begin with, I’m just going to quote one of our postcards to him. Dear Mr. Paulson, USA Today devoted over 2,000 words to Dan Rather’s resignation from the CBS Evening News. It noted in a timeline that Dan Rather apologized ‘for a CBS story that questioned President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The story was based on documents that apparently were forged.’ The fact is, however, sir, that your paper has not apologized for running the same phony story using the same bogus documents and based on the same dubious source. Your paper got the same documents that CBS used on the air from Bill Burkett, the dubious source who later admitted that he lied about where he had gotten them. Nobody knows exactly where these forgeries came from.

“In contrast to CBS, however, nobody at USA today has apologized or been held accountable for this scandal. Mr. Paulson, will you step forward now and take the blame or will you continue to stonewall?”

McCorkindale: “That’s quite an introduction, Ken.” (laughter).

Ken Paulson: “We take seriously what anybody has to say about USA Today, its credibility, its accuracy and its content. I will tell you [that] you have me scratching my head a little bit because we met here a year ago [and] I said to you, ‘Here’s my business card. If you have any questions or concerns about USA Today, drop me a note. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you’ve got.’ What surprises me is that?you mentioned the 2,000 words USA Today published about the 60 Minutes report, you didn’t mention the 6,000 word USA Today article from September explaining clearly what happened, why we relied on what we relied on,  who our sources were, laying it all out. We have erred absolutely on the side of disclosure. And since September 1 have not had a single question or comment?I’ve been all over this country, universities, talking to people saying ‘anybody have a question about USA Today’?no, just the 200 or so postcards generated by your organization.

“This is an elaborate thing and I don’t want to bore people with point counterpoint here but I will tell you that you look at that edition that we published back in September you can see what we did. We did publish a story the day after the 60 Minutes broadcast saying that there were documents that were found that undercut, that suggested maybe President Bush had gotten some favorable treatment.”

Paulson continued: “I noticed something on your website the other day?that has driven your criticism. It was a piece you ran Friday saying that USA Today and CBS were tripping over each other to get the same mangled and bogus story out. There’s no foundation for that at all. We had no story. We weren’t working on a story. We had no documents. We crafted that story exactly as every other news organization in this country. 60 Minutes broke the story at 8 o’clock in the evening and we scrambled. We raced to try to match it. That’s what we try to do in the business. The next day we carried the story I described.”

“But what happened after that? For 12 days 60 Minutes stood by their story. What did USA Today do immediately? When doubts were raised, we hired our own experts and reported the doubts back to our readers, what the experts said. Right away two of those folks said they were probably forgeries. We shared that with our readers. We followed that up with a 6,000-word special report which, by the way, also disclosed that the 60 Minutes staff had gone to the Kerry campaign and gave this guy Burkett access to the Kerry campaign. I’ve noted with interest that your own coverage has cited that fact in much of your criticism of 60 Minutes.

“We care much about the credibility of USA Today. And as you also know, we have announced?you learn lessons?we announced the strongest sources policy in the news business. If you get a document, base a story on a document at USA Today, what do you do now? You trace the custody of that document. We’ve taken every step possible And as Slate magazine recently said?USA Today has the toughest policies in the country. We take this seriously. And we obviously want to have a credible newspaper and we don’t want to [report] documents again or any time that we don’t have full faith in. So we appreciate your constructive criticism. I renew my invitation. Any time you have a question, you get in touch with me directly.”

Kincaid: “We’ve been asking questions. I sent you emails. We’ve sent these postcards. All we’re asking for you to do is what CBS finally had the integrity to do. In the case of CBS, four people were either fired or forced to resign. Your paper used the same bogus documents. If you read Mr. Boccardi’s report, it makes it clear CBS got on the air first on September 8 of last year because they were in competition for the same story with you. You got the documents, the same documents, the night the CBS story aired. Your reporters had been in contact with the same questionable source, Bill Burkett, for a couple years. You have to admit that. You had done stories before about Burkett, treating him as an authoritative source on President Bush’s National Guard service. You didn’t even do as much checking on these documents as CBS did.”

McCorkindale: “You’re out of order. You have three minutes. You can come back.”

Kincaid: “I’ll be back. We have to get these facts straight, Mr. Paulson.”

(Later). Kincaid: “Thank you Mr. Chairman.  I want to follow up because this is deadly serious what we’re discussing here. It’s not just your financial bottom line. It’s the credibility of your news operation and whether USA today wants to be taken seriously as a serious national newspaper. Now I wouldn’t be here today complaining if your new editor, Mr. Paulson, had forthrightly?after being caught in this Memogate scandal?apologized and either reprimanded or fired the staffers who had run this dubious story using the fake documents from the questionable source. And if you want any more information about this, consult Mr. Boccardi’s report, done with former Attorney General [Richard] Thornburgh, showing that CBS and USA Today were in competition for this story. CBS got there first. And everybody points the finger at them, with good reason. They’re on broadcast media and it has a big impact. But you were there one day later with basically the same story, although in your initial piece you didn’t even tell readers where you had gotten these bogus documents.

“It’s fine for Ken Paulson to say, ‘Well, after it appeared they were forgeries, we did a big long story about where we got the documents from, and later we did a story showing that CBS had collaborated with the Kerry campaign and groups like AIM had noted that.’ That’s great. That’s good follow-up. But what about the initial problem? You ran the same virtual bogus story as CBS News and, in contrast to CBS News, which got rid of 4 people, to my knowledge?and Ken Paulson could have told me this by now and perhaps I wouldn’t even be here?no discipline has been taken at USA Today over this.

“Now you say, ‘Well, we’ve tightened up our rules on using anonymous sources’ and you got a favorable story in the Washington Post by Howard Kurtz about that. Well, good for you.

“But it came a little too late because you ran this story during the heat of a presidential campaign which was designed to discredit President Bush. And it backfired. It backfired on CBS News and it backfired on USA Today and Gannett Co.”

Kincaid continued: “I just don’t understand why you can’t be forthright and say, ‘We messed it up. We’re sorry. We apologize,’ and take some action against your staffers. Instead, Mr. Hilkirk over there?your executive editor of USA Today?tells Howard Kurtz, when asked why you went with this phony story based on the bogus documents, ‘We never did vouch for the documents’ authenticity.’ You never did any investigation to determine whether the documents were real before you went with the story. Instead, your story relied on the CBS broadcast?the fact that CBS would run the story?as somehow adding legitimacy to these documents, which was another mistake on your part.”

“Mr. Chairman, Mr. Paulson, Mr. Hilkirk, board members: Why didn’t USA Today have the basic honesty and decency to say ‘We were wrong’ just like CBS. ‘We apologize.’ And have an investigation, not a few follow-up stories, an investigation, to see why you fell for the same phony documents.”

McCorkindale: “I think Ken has responded to your question. Is there anyone else (with a question)? No one? Okay this annual meeting is concluded. We’ll see you all again next year.”

A Poor Performance

To misquote a “Ratherism,” one would be likelier to see a hippopotamus run through the USA Today editorial offices than see editor Paulson appoint an independent panel to investigate his own Memogate scandal. It’s true that Paulson is cracking down on the use of anonymous sources, but don’t expect us to dance a jig, since this is happening even as the paper continues to face criticism and dodge all accountability for having published that front page story on the now-discredited National Guard documents referencing President Bush.

In a story titled “USA Today, Yesterday & Tomorrow,” published March 21 in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz noted that Paulson had imposed strict standards on the use of anonymous sources, to the point that some reporters believe he has gone too far and is thereby limiting their opportunity to compete on stories with other publications that have less strict standards. But Paulson can hardly be credited with going “too far” when it comes to addressing the newspaper’s own Guard document scandal.

Kurtz wrote, “One misstep during Paulson’s tenure occurred when USA Today obtained the now-discredited National Guard documents about President Bush and published a front page story the morning after CBS broadcast Dan Rather’s story on the subject. While editors later said they would not have published had CBS not acted first, the Sept. 8 story cited memos ‘obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program ‘60 Minutes.’”

Just A Misstep?

Isn’t it ironic that the media carefully reported on all the firings and disciplinary actions sparked by the Memogate report and yet USA Today’s actions are now characterized by Kurtz as a mere “misstep.” That reflects the failure of the rest of the media to hold USA Today accountable. This isn’t just a “misstep.” It is a scandal. 

Did USA Today decide to “skate” on the authentication of the memos, assuming CBS had successfully done so? That is apparently what the paper did. That was a terrible miscalculation.

On January 12, the Washington Post had quoted CBS News vice president Linda Mason as saying there “was a rush” for CBS to get the story on the air because producer Mary Mapes “felt it was a great story and she was going to get scooped on it by USA Today.”

The Boccardi/Thornbugh report states that “information available to the panel, including e-mails and interviews, indicates that reporters from other news organizations were also trying to get information from Lieutenant Colonel Burkett at the same time as 60 Minutes Wednesday. In fact, on Thursday, September 9, USA Today would publish a story using some of the same documents that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett had given to” CBS. (page 94).

So, as we noted in one of our Media Monitor radio broadcasts (alluded to by Paulson at the annual meeting), it’s a fact that USA Today and CBS were tripping over each other to get the same mangled and bogus story out.

Pointing The Finger At CBS

But USA Today treats the scandal exclusively as a CBS affair. When the Boccardi/Thornburgh panel issued its report, USA Today ran three items about it. One was a front-page story by Peter Johnson, “CBS Fires 4 over Bush Guard Story,” a story by Peter Johnson and Mark Memmott, “CBS firings should go higher up, critics say,” and an editorial, “CBS’s rush to air a story produces fiction, firestorm.” None of the pieces addressed the fact that USA Today was as guilty as CBS.

After AIM issued a press release on this, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post picked up the story and asked USA Today editorial page editor Brian Gallagher whether he needed to address his own paper’s role. “We think the editorial covered everything it needed to cover,” he told Kurtz.

But the editorial did not cover USA Today’s role in the scandal.

Until USA Today gives an honest assessment of its own story about the fake documents, their much-publicized effort to stem the use of anonymous sources will ring hollow.

AIM will continue to call on USA Today editor Paulson to follow the lead of CBS by launching an investigation.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, Bob Meyers of the National Press Foundation, and Rick Rodriguez of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

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Join us by donating to AIM today.


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