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“Rathergate” Becomes “USA Todaygate”

Accuracy in Media (AIM) today pointed out that the national newspaper USA Today is engaged in an active cover-up concerning its own publication of a phony Bush National Guard story using the same bogus documents that got CBS into trouble. AIM editor Cliff Kincaid called on USA Today editor Ken Paulson to follow the lead of CBS by launching an investigation and firing the culprits who have discredited the paper.

The fallout from the scandal took a new turn on January 12 when the Washington Post quoted CBS News Vice President Linda Mason, named to a new post overseeing broadcast standards, as saying that there “was a rush” on the part of CBS News to get the phony Bush National Guard 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.”

Well, CBS didn’t get scooped, but USA Today ran virtually the same story one day later, September 9.

Which raises the question: why hasn’t USA Today been held accountable for going with the same bogus story based on the same phony documents?  The answer: the paper has been stonewalling and covering up.

Accuracy in Media has been demanding action for months, asking for USA Today editor Ken Paulson to apologize for running the same bogus story and in fact using the CBS broadcast as confirmation that the documents were legitimate. “It is a scandal on top of another journalistic scandal,” said AIM Editor Kincaid. “And it involves USA Today, which was already reeling from the revelations that its prominent reporter, Jack Kelley, had been caught fabricating and faking stories.” 

In December AIM members began sending postcards to Paulson, after Dan Rather announced his decision to step down from the CBS Evening News in March. The AIM postcards said:

USA Today devoted over 2,000 words to Dan Rather’s resignation from the CBS Evening News. It noted in a timeline that Rather had apologized “for a CBS story that questioned President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The story was based on documents that apparently were forged.” But your paper has not apologized for running the same phony story, using the same bogus documents and based on the same dubious source [Bill Burkett]. In contrast to CBS, no one has apologized or been held accountable for this scandal at USA Today. Will you step forward and take the blame? Or will you continue to stonewall?

The CBS report (page 94) highlights the competition to be first, noting that “reporters from other news organizations were also trying to get information from Lieutenant Colonel Burkett at the same time as 60 Minutes Wednesday. In fact, on Thursday, September 9, USA Today would publish a story using some of the same documents that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett had given to Smith and Mapes, which its reporters had independently obtained directly from Lieutenant Burkett.”

Last year, in one of several articles or commentaries on the matter, AIM editor Kincaid noted:

On September 9, one day after the 60 Minutes story aired, USA Today was out with its own story under the headline, “Guard commander’s memos criticize Bush,” by Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard.  The story was based on “newly disclosed documents,” the paper claimed.  It said “the memos” were “obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program 60 Minutes?”

We pointed out that not only did USA Today make the same mistake as CBS News, but the newspaper’s editors used the CBS News broadcast of the story as further proof that they were somehow valid?Its “fact-checking” was even worse than CBS News, which at least went through the motions of appearing to consult some “experts” about the documents’ validity. 

A former USA Today staffer contacted us to say that he couldn’t believe they had the same kind of problem again so soon, and appeared to be ducking it. The “same kind of problem” is a reference to the Jack Kelley scandal, where a USA Today reporter was exposed as a massive fabricator.  That scandal forced a shake-up in the paper, resulting in Ken Paulson coming aboard as editor.  At first, Paulson seemed like a fellow who wanted to enforce honesty and integrity at the paper.  But he covers up the scandal at the paper over the use of the forged documents.

In covering the release of the CBS report on the Bush National Guard story on January 11, USA Today ran three items―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’ rush to air a story produces fiction, firestorm.”  None of the stories or editorials mentioned that USA Today fell for the same documents!

In commenting on CBS News practices, the USA Today editorial claimed:

“Its first error was in not authenticating the documents. The producer who developed the report and who had worked on the story since 1999 failed to find any expert to fully vouch for them. She also relied on a source of questionable credibility. That’s bad enough. But Rather and network executives compounded the error with a “rigid and blind” defense long after legitimate concerns were raised by the bloggers, outside document experts and others.”

Curiously, all of this criticism could also apply to USA Today. But the paper wants all of us to believe that CBS was the lone culprit.

The editorial said the report on the scandal was “a reminder of how vulnerable all news organizations are if they let their standards slip, and how carefully they need to listen when the accuracy of their work is questioned.”

AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid commented, “How true. So why doesn’t USA Today come clean on how and why it gobbled up the Burkett documents?”