Accuracy in Media

USA Today went through a horrendous scandal when reporter Jack Kelley was exposed as a plagiarist and faker who used anonymous sources to conceal his treachery.  Unfortunately, the paper seems not to have learned its lesson.  On July 19, it ran a full-page interview with someone hiding behind the label “Anonymous,” who was extremely critical in a new book of U.S. policy toward the Arab/Muslim world.

Many papers and all the major networks had previously done interviews with “anonymous,” as a way to try to discredit the Bush administration’s foreign policy.  The stories carried the use of anonymous sources to a ridiculous and indefensible extreme. But for USA Today to do such a thing, in the wake of the Kelley scandal, was a shocker.

USA Today made various claims about the alleged career of this “anonymous,” who was said to be a CIA veteran, but of course the readers had no way to verify any of that.  Other reporters have said that “anonymous” was removed or reassigned from the search for Osama bin Laden.  USA Today did not mention that.  This is critical because, if true, it means that “anonymous” was a failure at something he now claims to be an expert on.  On ABC’s World News Tonight, for example, Jake Tapper reported, “Within the intelligence community, ‘Anonymous’ has both supporters and detractors.  His detractors note he was removed from the hunt for bin Laden, perhaps freeing up his time to write a book.”

We have informed editor Ken Paulson that the publication of this interview does not meet the higher standards that are necessary to restore the credibility of USA Today. On the other hand, there is evidence that Paulson is taking some criticism of the paper seriously.  We had criticized the paper at the annual meeting of its parent company for running a favorable review of the Joseph Wilson book and quoting Wilson as saying that Vice President Dick Cheney had betrayed his country.  Wilson was a hero in the media for saying that President Bush lied when he said that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.  Wilson has now been completely discredited, and Bush has been proven correct.

On July 21, USA Today ran a story by John Diamond about how Wilson’s credibility has taken a big hit.  He noted that, “Critics have also accused the media, including USA TODAY, of trumpeting Wilson’s original charges, not doing enough to check his credibility and underreporting the new concerns about the accuracy of some of his statements.”

Prior to that, on July 18, USA Today ran a Richard Benedetto column, which noted that, “?now that the Wilson case has been debunked, it is interesting to note that the news media, so eager to build him up, and tear Bush down, now seem reluctant to tell the rest of the story, or at least the next chapter.  Wilson, who had been a fixture on television, now seems to have disappeared.  Democrats are silent.  Why were the media so willing to believe Wilson when he was an obvious Democratic partisan?  He not only worked for the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, he also is a foreign policy adviser to the Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry.”  These are good questions that apply to USA Today and its editor, Ken Paulson.

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