Accuracy in Media

Ken Paulson, a nice and friendly fellow, took over as editor at USA Today when reporter Jack Kelley was found to have fabricated a number of stories. Paulson was supposed to clean things up. But he ended up with a lot of egg on his face. First, he approved the story using the bogus Bush National Guard documents, which backfired against the paper in a big way, and now he is on the defensive because a large chunk of the paper’s story about the NSA collecting phone-records cannot be verified.

It’s surprising that Paulson survived the National Guard documents scandal. His paper used the same phony material that forced firings and resignations at CBS News. 

Then, the NSA story appeared, charging that the spy agency was collecting tens of millions of our “domestic” phone-records, and that all of the major phone companies have been part of the scheme. This is the story that now looks mostly bogus.

Noting that some of the key companies were categorically rejecting the charges, we smelled a rat and said so in a column. We wrote that “The controversy over the USA Today story suggests, once again, that the media have rushed into print with something that looks bad, in order to concoct a scandal for the Bush Administration and drive down the approval numbers of the President.”

Rather than issue a straightforward correction or apology, USA Today has published “A note to our readers,” informing them that, despite what the paper had reported as fact, the evidence indicates that BellSouth “did not turn over call records to the NSA” and Verizon “had not participated in the NSA database?”

The note concluded: “USA Today will continue to report on the contents and scope of the database as part of its ongoing coverage of national security and domestic surveillance.”

This is a variation of never having to say you’re sorry. You simply keep reporting and backtracking from the story, as if you are discovering new “facts” along the way. Never mind that the original “facts” have now been exposed as false or dubious.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the paper had uncovered the true facts before running the story? Isn’t that what journalism is supposed to be? Not when you’re anxious to get a prize-winning “scoop” damaging to the Bush Administration.

Looking like an even bigger fool than Ken Paulson at USA Today, Senator Patrick Leahy had raised that particular edition of the paper in the air, as if he had thought the media had caught the Bush Administration in an impeachable offense. Senator Arlen Specter demanded-and got-hearings.

A follow-up USA Today story by Susan Page, building off the largely bogus account, was headlined, “NSA secret database report triggers fierce debate in Washington.”  

The real debate should be over irresponsible reporting.

The original story by Lesley Cauley was based entirely on anonymous sources. The “note to our readers” explained that “USA Today also spoke again with the sources who had originally provided information about the scope and contents of the domestic calls database. All said the published report accurately reflected their knowledge and understanding of the NSA program, but none could document a contractual relationship between BellSouth or Verizon and the NSA, or that the companies turned over bulk calling records to the NSA.”

Shouldn’t these “sources” who misled the paper and the nation be identified?

AIM members received postcards to send to USA Today editor Paulson. They said:

Dear Mr. Paulson:

Lesley Cauley’s “scoop” about the NSA collecting domestic phone records has been called into serious question. Her anonymous sources do not stand up to the on-the-record denials issued by some of the phone companies said to be involved. The controversy has undermined your promise to more tightly restrict the use of anonymous sources. If you cannot come up with any hard evidence and verifiable facts for Cauley’s sensational claims, you need to admit there has been a massive failure of reporting and editing in this case. Your “trust me” journalism falls flat in the wake of your use of the fake National Guard documents to smear the President.

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