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USA Today Editor Stunned by Taser Story

Ken Paulson took over as editor at USA Today in the wake of the Jack Kelley scandal. Kelley had embarrassed the paper by writing a series of stories filled with lies. Paulson said that would never happen again. Then, he presided over USA Today’s own version of the CBS Memogate scandal. Like CBS, USA Today used those bogus documents to discredit President Bush’s National Guard service. But Paulson managed to exercise a form of damage control because CBS used the documents first and put them on TV. Paulson acted as if the scandal was confined to CBS. Many in the media went along with his ploy. They pretended that USA Today was not as tarred by the scandal as CBS.

Now, however, Paulson has got another scandal on his hands. This one might not be so easy to dismiss because it has already become a lawsuit against USA Today’s parent company, Gannett.

As we noted in a Media Monitor before the suit was filed, USA Today’s June 3 article about the non-lethal Taser devices used in law enforcement was seriously flawed. The USA Today sidebar showed photographs of a Taser X26, an electric chair, a lightning storm, and an electric train track. The sidebar explicitly compared the output of the Taser X26 to that of an “electric chair” and said the Taser output was 100 times that of the chair.

That was untrue. The Taser system’s average current is more than 1,000 times less than that of the electric chair.

The June 30 Taser lawsuit against Gannett says that company officials met with members of the editorial board of the Arizona Republic, a Gannett paper, and the USA Today editorial board. Taser, which is based in Arizona, said it tried to correct inaccuracies and bias in the stories that had been published up until that point. It said the June 3 article, which was published after those meetings, demonstrated that this information was deliberately disregarded so that the company could publish allegations against Taser that were “knowingly false, unfounded, and injurious?”  The lawsuit cites the erroneous comparison between the Taser and an executioner’s electric chair.  To repeat: the article stated that the output of the Taser was more than 100 times that of the electric chair when the Taser’s average current was 1,000 times less than that of the electric chair.

Taser asked for a correction and retraction but received an “inconspicuous and inadequate” correction three days later. The correction noted that the original version of the story “significantly overstated the amount of electricity delivered by a Taser,” and that “The amount is a miniscule fraction of the electricity used by the electric chair.” About three weeks later, Taser again asked for a complete retraction. Taser says that Gannett’s failure to do so reflects a malicious and “calculated smear campaign” against the company. 

Such coverage, the company says, is one key reason why Taser stock is down about 68 percent this year. Chief Executive Rick Smith said the “biased campaign” has decimated the financial worth of the company by more than $1 billion.

The media campaign against Taser has coincided with a legal campaign. The Internet is full of lawyers offering to sue the company for using the Taser on people in confrontations with police. The lawyers call it “taser abuse.” One Internet site advises people to “Submit your complaint to a lawyer” online.

Ironically, Tasers were devised as an alternative for police to using more deadly firearms. It seems the police just can’t win no matter what they try to do to restrain law-breakers. Trial lawyers, obviously goaded by stories such as those in USA Today, have decided to sue on behalf of people who have been stunned by the devices and claim serious injuries or even death as a result. A Reuters dispatch from July of last year noted that, “Media reports of potential links between dozens of deaths of criminal suspects subdued by police with Taser stun guns have dogged the company in recent months.” They have dogged the company but energized the trial lawyers. Taser says no deaths can be attributed to the direct use of the technology.

One sensational case has already proven to be frivolous. A lawsuit against Taser, filed in a Florida district court in March, 2004, claimed that a Taser M26 stun gun had killed a Florida man. But the medical examiner’s report said the death was unrelated to the use of the stun gun and cited his use of illegal drugs.