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.
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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.