Accuracy in Media

To misquote a “Ratherism,” one would be likelier to see a hippopotamus run through the USA Today editorial offices than see Ken Paulson appoint an independent panel to investigate his own “Memogate” scandal. Paulson, editor of USA Today, is cracking down on the use of anonymous sources, but don’t expect us to dance a jig, since this is happening even as the paper continues to face criticism and dodge all accountability for having published a front page story on the now-discredited National Guard documents referencing President Bush.

In a story titled “USA Today, Yesterday & Tomorrow” published March 21 in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz notes that Paulson has imposed strict standards on the use of anonymous sources, to the point that some reporters believe he has gone too far and is thereby limiting their opportunity to compete on stories with other publications that have less strict standards.

Paulson can hardly be credited with going “too far” when it comes to addressing the newspaper’s own Guard document scandal, though. While cracking down on anonymous sources, Paulson continues to ignore criticism comparing USA Today’s errors with those of CBS.  Kurtz wrote, “One misstep during Paulson’s tenure occurred when USA Today obtained the now-discredited National Guard documents about President Bush and published a front page story the morning after CBS broadcast Dan Rather’s story on the subject. While editors later said they would not have published had CBS not acted first, the Sept. 8 story cited memos ‘obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program ’60 Minutes.'”

Isn’t it ironic that media termed the CBS mess “Memogate,” carefully reporting on all the firings and disciplinary actions sparked by the 224-page report, yet USA Today’s actions are now characterized by Kurtz as a mere “misstep?”

Did USA Today decide to “skate” on the authentication of the memos, assuming CBS had successfully done so? Apparently so. They also relied on the White House, namely Dan Bartlett’s statement that he “did not dispute the documents’ authenticity.” Bartlett however only had a couple hours to view the documents, and authentication was the role of the news agency in this case.

The USA Today story was published actually on September 9, 2004, the day after the notorious 60 Minutes story on the documents aired. USA Today’s Dave Moniz later said he met with Bill Burkett and got copies of the documents Burkett had given CBS.  USA Today published its own story on the documents headlined “Guard commander’s memos criticize Bush.” The story, by Moniz and Jim Drinkard, was based on “newly disclosed documents” which were “obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program 60 Minutes.”

Ironically, on January 12 the Washington Post quoted CBS News Vice President Linda Mason as saying there “was a rush” for CBS to get the story on the air because producer Mary Mapes “felt it was a great story and she was going to get scooped on it by USA Today.” So USA Today and CBS were tripping over each other to get the same mangled and bogus story out.

AIM has called on USA Today editor Ken Paulson to follow the lead of CBS by launching an investigation-all to no avail. When the independent panel that investigated the CBS story issued its report, USA Today ran three items on it: a front-page story by Peter Johnson, “CBS Fires 4 over Bush Guard Story,” a story by Peter Johnson and Mark Memmott, “CBS firings should go higher up, critics say,” and an editorial, “CBS’s rush to air a story produces fiction, firestorm.” None of the pieces addressed the fact that USA Today was as guilty as CBS.

After AIM issued a press release on this, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post picked up the story and asked USA Today editorial page editor Brian Gallagher whether he needed to address his own paper’s role. “We think the editorial covered everything it needed to cover,” he told Kurtz.

Until USA Today gives an honest assessment of its own running with the fake documents, their efforts to stem the use of anonymous sources will ring hollow.

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