Accuracy in Media

In some unfinished business from the “Rathergate” scandal, we continue to come across people who don’t know that USA Today ran the same virtual story as CBS News, based on the same bogus Bush National Guard documents. CBS apologized and fired four. USA Today hasn’t apologized or fired anybody. It hopes the scandal will simply go away. But we won’t let it. Now we’ve come across Paul Janensch, a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and writes a column on media misdeeds. He tells us that he wasn’t aware of USA Today’s role in the Bush National Guard documents scandal.

We contacted “Professor News,” as he’s called, after he had written a column praising USA Today for revealing Armstrong Williams’s “cozy arrangement with the Education Department,” in which he received $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind law. Our question to him was simple: “Dear Sir: Have you commented on USA Today’s failure to reprimand any staffers or editors for running a Bush National Guard story based on the same bogus documents used by CBS?” His response: “Never saw it.  Send it to me.” After we did, his response was, “Thanks.  I wasn’t aware of the USA Today story about the documents.  I’ll keep it [in] mind.”

It’s great that he will keep it in mind. But we thought he would be sufficiently concerned to do something about it. We thought, for example, that he might comment on it on WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio, where he does regular commentaries. Or he might do a “Professor News” column about it on the website of the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. It doesn’t look likely.

Frankly, this isn’t too surprising. With few exceptions, the major media have let USA Today off the hook for using the bogus documents. And yet, by any reasonable standard, USA Today’s conduct was worse than CBS. The paper ran the story one day later and used the fact that CBS had aired its story as authentication of the phony documents. USA Today staffers had gotten the documents from Bill Burkett, the same “source” used by CBS. But Burkett now says he lied about where he got them. The ultimate source is still unknown.

Ignoring its role in that media scandal, USA Today would prefer to be known as the paper that broke the Armstrong Williams story. This pleases the liberals, who wanted a conservative scalp to hang on the wall.  At last count it had run four stories about that. The paper’s editors even brought up the subject in an interview with President Bush. The editors should have used the interview as an opportunity to apologize to the president over using the phony documents in a story designed to discredit his military service.

USA Today is the nation’s top-selling newspaper with a total average daily circulation of 2.3 million. Its new editor, Ken Paulson, had told people that he wanted to enforce high ethical standards at the paper. Paulson has been a big disappointment.  This case demonstrates that accountability is still lacking regarding serious media misconduct.

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