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USA Today Under Fire for Fact-Checking Trump's "Lie-Filled" Medicare for All Op-Ed Only After Publishing It

"Seems like a...sequencing problem," noted one critic as another said newspaper should have upheld journalistic standards by telling president to "go pound sand" over rampant falsehoods

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hold signs during an event on healthcare September 13, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sen. Sanders held an event to introduce the Medicare for All Act of 2017. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Reputable news publications tend to fact-check articles before they are published and blasted out to millions of Americans via social media, but USA Today is under fire for waiting a full day after it posted President Donald Trump's falsehood-riddled attack on Medicare for All to publish a refutation of the outright lies that filled nearly every single sentence of the president's piece.

"First we publish it, brimming with dubious claims and falsehoods. Then we share the juiciest bits on social. Then we fact check it. Then we promote the fact-check to critics and fans. Seems like a... sequencing problem," Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, noted on Twitter after the newspaper on Thursday published its approximately 2,000-word rebuttal of Trump's 800-word op-ed.

USA Today's belated fact-check of Trump's piece—conducted by FactCheck.org and published in USA Today's "news" section—came after the publication faced intense backlash for posting what was characterized as little more than a White House press release that did not withstand even the most basic scrutiny from healthcare experts, journalists, lawmakers, and progressive analysts.

"'Tell the lying powerful person to go pound sand' is basically Free Press 101."
—Ryan Cooper, The Week

By publishing a fact-check 24 hours after Trump's op-ed appeared, critics argued, USA Today effectively conceded that either Trump's op-ed was not fact-checked before it reached the newspaper's massive daily readership and its millions of social media followers—or it was fact-checked and the paper's editorial team "knowingly published lies."

In response to widespread criticism of his decision to publish Trump's op-ed, Bill Sternberg—editor of USA Today's opinion page—insisted in a note appended to the very bottom of Trump's article that the president's piece was fact-checked just like all other opinion pieces the paper publishes online and in print on a daily basis.

"[W]e check factual assertions while allowing authors wide leeway to express their opinions," Sternberg said.

But the fact-check USA Today posted a day after it handed Trump a megaphone to spout flagrant lies shows that almost every "assertion" the president made in his piece is demonstrably false.

Here is FactCheck.org's broad summary of its findings:

  • The president claimed that the Medicare for All Act, one of several Democratic-sponsored health insurance bills, would "cost an astonishing $32.6 trillion during its first 10 years." That's an estimate of the cost to the federal government, but that ignores the offsetting savings in healthcare costs for individuals, employers, and state governments.
  • Trump wrote that the Medicare for All Act would "take away benefits" from seniors. The plan calls for adding new benefits to Medicare coverage, including dental, vision and hearing aids, and eliminating deductibles.
  • The president overstates the consensus when he says "we have seen Democrats across the country uniting around" the Medicare for All Act. There are competing bills that would expand insurance coverage by increasing access to Medicare or Medicaid.
  • Trump claimed he kept his campaign promise to "protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions." But the administration supports a lawsuit that it says would lead to the elimination of the Affordable Care Act's pre-existing condition protections.
  • The president also said he has kept his promise to "create new health insurance options" to lower premiums, "and we are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down." But not all premiums are "coming down."

As several journalists noted after Trump's op-ed appeared on Wednesday, the outlet had absolutely no obligation to publish the president's lie-filled piece—which, as Eli Pariser of Upworthy observed, will likely have the unfortunate consequence of harming the credibility of USA Today journalists who work tirelessly to get their facts straight.

In response to one commentator who expressed "sympathy" for USA Today's position, The Week's Ryan Cooper noted that a fundamental tenet of press freedom is the ability to "tell the lying powerful person to go pound sand."

"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," Pete Vernon of Columbia Journalism Review noted in a detailed assessment of USA Today's decision to publish the president's op-ed.

"Responsible organizations have concluded that there are reasonable steps that can be taken to contextualize the false claims," Vernon added. "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."

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