Accuracy in Media

Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, has written a column saying that CBS News was scandalized in the Rathergate memo scandal because 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt had been “dumped” as executive producer of the program. Newharth called him “the old man” who started 60 Minutes. Well, if Hewitt is the “old man” of 60 Minutes, Neuharth is the “old man” of USA Today. And we wonder why Neuharth hasn’t said anything about the fact that USA Today ran a story based on the same phony documents used by CBS.

Neuharth argued that Hewitt’s knowledge and wise counsel would have saved CBS from doing a story based on fake documents. His column was headlined, “‘Kids’ at ’60 Minutes’ needed the old man.” In response, we say that the kids at USA Today, including editor Ken Paulsen, need their old man, too. Neuharth seems not to know that USA Today ran the same bogus story, based on the same bogus documents. What’s worse, USA Today went with the story in part because CBS had done so the night before. Rather than investigate the documents for themselves, USA Today editors relied on CBS to verify them. Of course, we now know that CBS ignored the counsel of various experts who questioned their authenticity. 

While CBS has been scandalized because of this monumental fiasco, USA Today has pretended that its use of the documents was somehow non-controversial. It has treated this affair as a scandal for CBS, not itself. The lingering suspicion, in the case of CBS and USA Today, is that they went with the story because they wanted to damage Bush. Dan Rather has a partisan bias going back decades, while USA Today has a very liberal editorial policy. We sometimes see that bias reflected in coverage of major news.

USA Today, for example, ran a headline over a story claiming that John Kerry held an “edge over President Bush following the first presidential debate.” One answer did indicate that most people felt that Kerry had given a better performance. But if you actually analyzed the other questions asked of those who gave the overall better score to Kerry, you found that Bush came out the winner on the most significant issues. Asked whether either candidate demonstrated he is tough enough to do the job, Bush won 54-37. People were asked, “regardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle the situation in Iraq.” The answer: Bush wins 54-43.

Neuharth, in his column on the CBS scandal, noted that Hewitt was being given “a national annual award” for a “Lifetime of Excellence in Journalism” at Neuharth’s alma mater, the University of South Dakota. He failed to mention that the award is named for him?the “Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism.”

For his part, Hewitt declared that he never would have done the story based on the Bush/National Guard documents. He said, “I would have been very wary injecting myself into a campaign. You’ve got to be very careful that you’re not perceived as doing the job that one of the two candidates should be doing himself.” Now that Hewitt has spoken out, Neuharth should tell us what he thinks about his paper’s misconduct in the same scandal.




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