USA Today’s Flat-Out False Trump Op-Ed Raises Real Questions About Their Journalistic Integrity
On Wednesday, USA TODAY published an op-ed by Donald Trump, slandering Democrats with lies about Medicare and immigration policies. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote, “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.
“Many of these are claims we have already debunked. Presumably, the president is aware of our fact-checks — he even links to two — but chose to ignore the facts in service of a campaign-style op-ed.”
USA TODAY editors also chose to ignore the facts — at potential peril to its parent company.
USA TODAY is owned by Gannett Company, a publicly traded corporation. (NYSE: GCI). As such, they must adhere to rules of corporate governance. More on this in a moment.
High-ranking Democrats in Congress like Chuck Schumer blasted Trump’s op-ed. An avalanche of criticism came cascading down on USA TODAY. Journalism professors torched the newspaper for running the op-ed. Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at NYU tweeted:
This morning @USATODAY lost its mind. It ran an op-ed in which "almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood," according to the Washington Post fact checker. What a humiliation for everyone who works there. https://t.co/fnKscxXKeB— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) October 10, 2018
Most criticism of USA TODAY’s handling of Trump’s op-ed has focused on journalism practices and ethics. But what role does the newspaper’s parent company play, if any, in holding the paper accountable?
Gannett’s corporate ethics policy statement header says: “To effect change for the good in the communities we serve, to make life better for the people who trust us to know them and do right by them.”
Bruce Kogut, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, said, “Gannett board members have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.” He added, “Reputation is certainly part of that.”
On Wednesday, I reached out to Gannett and asked about the company’s fiduciary duty to shareholders to protect the reputation of the company.
A spokesperson for Gannett responded with this statement from their editorial page editor, Bill Sternberg:
“USA TODAY Opinion provides a forum for a diversity of views on issues of national relevance. We see ourselves as America’s conversation center, presenting our readers with voices from the right, left and middle. President Trump’s op-ed was treated like other column submissions; we check factual assertions while allowing authors wide leeway to express their opinions. Readers are invited to submit opposing viewpoints and provide additional context, some of which will be published in the days ahead.”
Sternberg’s statement was subsequently posted as an Editor’s Note on Trump’s op-ed.
As of this writing, Sternberg’s Editor’s Note has apparently been removed from Trump’s op-ed — without mention of USA TODAY’s subsequent findings of falsifications.
In response to pressure, on Thursday, USA TODAY published its own fact check of Trump’s op-ed, finding:
“An examination of the president’s claims by FactCheck.org, a partner of USA TODAY, showed several instances where he misrepresented the facts and made misleading statements about Medicare and health insurance in general.”
“The president falsely claims, for example, that Democrats support ‘open borders’ and says, without evidence, that the Democrats ‘will seek to slash budgets’ for Medicare and Social Security.”
Journalism experts again roundly criticized USA TODAY for fact-checking after publishing Trump’s op-ed. Also, the paper’s new statement seemed to contradict Sternberg’s Editor’s Note that the op-ed had previously been fact-checked.
Commentators had seized on Sternberg’s “wide leeway” spin. Margaret Sullivan, former public editor for The New York Times, now a media columnist for The Washington Post wrote, of the Editor’s Note:
“The statement is nonsensical, because adherence to facts has no right, left or middle.
“It’s simply not the case, for example, that Trump kept his campaign promise to defend protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.”
Dan Gillmor, Professor of Practice, Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, tweeted:
let's be clear: USA Today is now touting the (after the fact) fact-checking of a lie-filled op-ed that the editorial page editor insisted had already been fact-checked before publication. They're digging themselves deeper and deeper.— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) October 11, 2018
Just apologize, for god's sake. https://t.co/4bXls69Yx0
Today, in response to my inquiry about the Editor’s Note, a representative from USA TODAY referred me to this piece published yesterday by USA TODAY standards editor Manny Garcia about the op-ed: ‘Donald Trump’s Medicare op-ed and all the reaction in USA TODAY show democracy in action.’”
Trump’s op-ed is now absent of any Editor’s Note, despite USA TODAY’s own debunking of false statements in it.
What are the editorial norms for publishing an Editor’s Note? Instead of removing Sternberg’s Editor’s Note on Trump’s op-ed, should USA TODAY update the note to include mention of their findings of falsehoods in Trump’s piece?
Kelly McBride is Senior Vice President at The Poynter Institute and a media ethicist. [McBride noted that Poynter and USA TODAY have a partnership, a training program initiative between the two entities.] She said, “Opinion pieces are meant to stand on their own. It’s equally valuable putting the president’s inaccuracies in there.” She said of Gannett’s responsibility, “You don’t want board members telling editors what to do. That would be crazy.”
But in these crazy times, some corporate governance experts disagree.
Steve Coll sits on the board of directors of Gannett. He’s also dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University. Coll has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders of Gannett to protect the reputation of the company. As a journalism leader, presumably, he has a responsibility to promote sound journalistic practices.
Coll has not responded to inquiries about USA TODAY’s handling of Trump’s op-ed. Board members are typically well compensated in cash and stock for very part-time work. In April, Coll acquired 16,664 shares of Gannett stock (worth $158,141 at today’s price per share). Priced at “zero” at time of purchase suggests Coll may have exercised a stock option grant.
Does Coll have a responsibility to comment on USA TODAY’s handling of Trump’s op-ed? Some corporate governance experts think he does.
Michael Gordon, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Business Administration and Faculty Director, Center for Social Impact, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said, “The SEC’s Code of Corporate Governance for publicly traded companies puts the onus on a company’s board to ‘identify the legitimate needs of their stakeholder’ — notice: not only shareholders — and to be ‘mindful that their decisions affect stockholders, stakeholders, and our entire society.’
“The misstatements in the president’s piece were not harmless, they were not off-the-cuff remarks. They were deliberate misrepresentations of facts and history, and that is something that any board member must call out the paper for.”
Sandra J. Sucher, Joseph L. Rice III Faculty Fellow, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, said, “It is perfectly appropriate to hold Gannett accountable for the actions of a Gannett-owned business like USA TODAY. If the words ‘for the good of the communities we serve,’ and ‘to make life better for the people who trust us,’ and ‘do right by them’ are to have any meaning at all, they would prevent a Gannett-owned company from running an op-ed, regardless of the writer, which its own fact checkers have proved to contain misrepresentations.”
USA TODAY’s handling of Trump’s op-ed has arguably nicked the newspaper’s trustworthiness. Should investors and shareholders of Gannett be concerned about potential harm to the company’s reputation?
Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, Chief Reputation Officer at Reputation Institute, said, “Gannett’s reputation wasn’t that strong to start with. Investors need to be acutely aware of the growing exposure of reputation risk among all media companies. Perceptions of trust will trade at a premium.”
Gannett’s largest investors may be keeping tabs on USA TODAY’s Trump op-ed firestorm.
Sandra Sucher said, “Investors in a media company that depends on the public’s trust should be concerned about the company’s publication of a misleading op-ed piece like the one published by USA TODAY. It undermines the legitimacy of the company as a purveyor of truth. If enough people believe that, there will be consequences, and not good ones, for investors.”
Michael Gordon said, “Those with financial ties to Gannett may find USA TODAY’s [Trump] op-ed to be a ‘blip.’ None of its investors is likely to withdraw its support based on this alone. But Blackrock, its largest institutional investor, and among the most influential in the world, is on the record as saying it will remove support for companies that fail to contribute to society.
“Gannett would be wise to ensure that, going forward, it uses care to ensure that what its papers say comport with the truth — lest those words ricochet wildly, misinform the public, and ultimately come back to haunt the company.”
Steve Coll did not respond to inquiries.