News outlets have long held to the principle that when the president speaks, his words are newsworthy. President Trump, whose frequent lies and misleading claims are a feature of his communications strategy, has challenged that maxim during the 2016 campaign and since taking office. Instant fact checks, quick analysis, and contextual reporting have become vital strategies for any organization attempting to accurately cover Trump’s words. But on Wednesday, USA Today handed over a section of its opinion pages to the president, allowing him to publish a piece “in which almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood,” according to Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler. Fact checks of the piece from the Associated Press, NPR, and numerous others soon followed.
The target of Trump’s op-ed was the Democratic Party’s plans for healthcare and immigration, which the president cast as a “radical agenda” that “would destroy American prosperity.” As soon as the piece hit the Web, its publication was met with disbelief from journalists. “USA Today not only published a White House press release disguised as an ‘op-ed by Donald Trump,’ it is using its Twitter account to blast out the article’s lies to 3.6 million followers,” lamented the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. “Opinions and interpretations are NOT the same as straight up LIES. And that is what @realDonaldTrump did in @USATODAY” tweeted MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle.
USA Today Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg pushed back against criticism, writing on Twitter that “there was considerable back and forth about particular factual assertions in the original submission. The degree of fact-checking is also apparent in the many hyperlinks in the digital version.” Many of those links led to information that directly contradicted what the op-ed claimed (including two links to previous WaPo fact checks), so it’s unclear why the paper didn’t simply demand a correction to the piece before publishing. And readers of the print edition, of course, wouldn’t have access to those links.
Opinion columns generally aren’t subject to the same rigorous vetting that hard news stories receive, but they’re also not supposed to be fact-free propaganda. Sternberg issued a statement claiming the piece, “was treated like other column submissions; we check factual assertions while allowing authors wide leeway to express their opinions.” But given that health insurance premiums are rising, not “coming down,” that Medicare is already a government-run program so Trump’s scare tactic about bureaucrats controlling the program is absurd, and that Democrats generally have pushed to expand Social Security benefits, not “slash” them, whatever fact checking went on was obviously insufficient.
Throughout the 2016 campaign and continuing into the president’s recent flood of rallies, news outlets have debated whether to run Trump’s speeches live, given that he is prone to spout outright falsehoods with abandon. Responsible organizations have concluded that there are reasonable steps that can be taken to contextualize the false claims. But in providing a print platform for similarly mendacious puffery of the president’s own actions, USA Today chose to ignore the lessons that should have been learned by now, and it deserves the scrutiny and criticism it has received.
Below, more on USA Today’s decision and the White House communications strategy.
- What was USA Today thinking?: Slamming the decision to publish Trump’s piece, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes, “The opinion editors at USA Today seem to have forgotten the axiom popularized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: You’re allowed to have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.”
- Would others have run it? CNN’s Tom Kludt questions whether USA Today should have published the piece, gathering input from opinion editors across the industry. “It is crucial that we hold the president to the same standards we demand of other contributors,” Boston Globe op-ed page editor Marjorie Pritchard told him.
- Rebuttals: Sternberg promised that USA Today would publish responses to Trump’s piece, and it did so on Wednesday evening, rounding up rebuttals under the headline: “Donald Trump knows nothing about Medicare, health care or Democrats.”
- Skipping the live rallies: Trump’s op-ed was compared by some to the rallies at which he spews misleading statements and outright lies. Those events used to received live coverage on Fox News, but Politico’s Jason Schwartz and Gabby Orr report that, as viewers have tuned out, the network decided to stop airing most of the rallies. “Some in the White House are worried that the president is losing a prime-time megaphone to his base,” they write.
- Trump as comms chief: On Tuesday, New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi found herself sitting in the Oval Office with President Trump, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and John Kelly. The purpose of the gathering was apparently to disabuse her of the idea that Kelly and Trump had a strained relationship. Her piece on that bizarre afternoon is worth reading in full.
Other notable stories:
- To mark the anniversary of Ronan Farrow’s first piece on Harvey Weinstein, eight New Yorker writers penned essays about what’s next for #MeToo. “Right now, many women and men are searching for rational answers to questions about the workplace, about justice, and about the ways in which we conduct our private lives,” editor David Remnick wrote in his introduction to the package. “It is our wish that these pieces add something vital to that conversation.”
- Hurricane Michael made landfall over the Florida panhandle on Wednesday, causing massive destruction. Network and cable anchors had rushed to the coast to report on one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the continental United States, which quickly escalated from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane over the past few days. The New York Times reports that, as of Wednesday evening, “the full extent of the damage and other casualties was uncertain.”
- The latest on Jamal Khashoggi: The Times’s David D. Kirkpatrick and Malachy Browne report that the 15 Saudi men suspected of carrying out Khashoggi’s murder have been identified. Meanwhile, the Post’s Shane Harris writes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.” Finally, Sulome Anderson writes for CJR that Khashoggi’s case demonstrates the importance of ethical reporting on hostages.
- The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay, Asawin Suebsaeng, and Maxwell Tani go “inside the remarkable, insane rise of a thrice-failed congressional candidate to Trump whisperer” in their profile of NRATV host and regular Fox News guest Dan Bongino. The former Secret Service agent has earned praise from President Trump even as his inflammatory behavior has reportedly gotten him banned from some Fox News programming.
- For CJR, Jesse Holcomb explores whether local news can join the digital age. And Michael Barajas reports from Texas as part of our series on midterm races, examining the role elected officials play in mass incarceration.