Our Horrible Media: USA Today edition

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on April 29, 2021

USA Today, the newspaper that decades ago pioneered the practice of short front page stories that weren't continued inside has recently pioneered a new type of opinion piece: The ever-evolving commentary.

Our Horrible Media: Stealth Editing

In a first of its kind, USA Today had former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams rewrite her piece on Georgia's election law after Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta. Abrams re-written piece softens her endorsement of boycotts against her home state after the MLB's decision cost Atlanta-area businesses, many of them black-owned and employing a large number of blacks, an estimated $100 million.

You can compare the original op-ed here, with the edited one here. Abrams and her allies (like Politifact) used the re-written version to bolster claims by Abrams that she isn't really pro-boycott, and Abrams' initial piece says that she doesn't support a boycott "yet."

However, one damning paragraph that was substantially changed after the MLB move, makes it clear that she wasn't going to condemn others for boycotting the state either.

Original version:

The impassioned response to the racist, classist bill that is now the law of Georgia is to boycott in order to achieve change. Events hosted by major league baseball, world class soccer, college sports and dozens of Hollywood films hang in the balance. At the same time, activists urge Georgians to swear off of hometown products to express our outrage. Until we hear clear, unequivocal statements that show Georgia-based companies get what’s at stake, I can’t argue with an individual’s choice to opt for their competition. [emphasis added]

Revised version:

The impassioned (and understandable) response to the racist, classist bill that is now the law of Georgia is to boycott in order to achieve change. Events that can bring millions of dollars to struggling families hang in the balance. Major League Baseball pulled both its All-Star Game and its draft from Georgia, which could cost our state nearly $100 million in lost revenue.

It wasn't until nearly three weeks later, after being called out by Matt Whitlock, a GOP communications guy, on Twitter that USA Today finally acknowledged the changes and added an editor's note to the top of the piece.

I've often criticized newspapers small and large that make substantive (and even minor) changes to online stories without disclosing them. Allowing, and even inviting, politicians to effectively re-write history with continuously evolving commentary pieces are reminiscent of George Orwell's nightmares. "1984" was a cautionary tale, not a how-to guide.

Make no mistake, this is something that politicians have been attempting for decades. Columnist George Will famously noted more than a decade ago that Senate Democrats Russ Feingold, Frank Lautenberg, and Barbara Boxer remarks defending infanticide during debates in Congress in the late 1990s over banning partial birth abortion were either heavily edited or completely disappeared from the Congressional Record.

In a colloquy on Sept. 26, 1996, Santorum asked two senators, Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)—both opponents of actually banning partial-birth abortion, both still serving—if killing a baby that had slipped entirely from the birth canal would still be a "choice" that the mother (which she indisputably would then be) had a constitutionally protected right to make. Neither senator said "no." Feingold said it would be up to the woman and her doctor. Lautenberg agreed.

We have a record of this 1996 exchange only because of C-Span. Congressional Record, supposedly a transcript of what is said on the Senate floor, was altered. One can understand why.

You can find a transcript of the discussion on the partial birth abortion ban bill on Oct. 20, 1999, that George Will references in his column here. You will not find any colloquy between Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Barbara Boxer there. Yet this exists.

Without C-SPAN then, and YouTube now, this is gone. Whatever your position on the abortion issue itself, the ability of politicians, aided by compliant media, and now, Big Tech, to memory hole the inconvenient is a dangerous development, and one that's easier than ever.

Our Horrible Media: Fractured Fact Check

I found this USA Today fact check the other day as I was doing research on mask wearing and outdoor transmission. The fact check tackles claims in a meme posted to the Bikers for Trump Facebook page that now features a "false information" tag based on USA Today's findings.

USA Today Fact Check

It turns out, as USA Today correctly notes, that the numbers are off. But how far off are they?

The post doesn't quite get the facts right – or the math. South Dakota confirmed 124 COVID-19 cases tied to the Sturgis Rally as of Sept. 8, and other states have reported at least 290 people in 12 states testing positive after attending the rally. About 460,000 people attended the rally. The infection rate based on the above numbers is 0.09%, found by dividing 414 (South Dakota's cases plus the other states' cases) by 460,000, and multiplying that by 100. If there had been just 88 cases, the infection rate would have been 0.02%, as the original poster said.

So, the meme claimed 0.02% and the correct number was 0.09%. That larger number reportedly included just one death, of a 69-year-old man from Minnesota with underlying health conditions.

This earned the original post a "false," which I suppose is defensible if the only options are "true" or "false." The true number is 4.5x higher than the number the 0.02% the meme touted. On the flip side, it's off by a mere 0.07%. Even with the corrected numerator, the denominator is so huge that the change is miniscule. It seems like this should earn a "partly true" rating from USA Today at the very least, since partly false appears to be an option. [I looked for a "partly true" ruling from USA Today, but couldn't find one and it's not really worth more of my time searching.]

Whether it is 0.09% or 0.02%, the larger point of the meme, that outdoor transmission of COVID is exceedingly rare still stands. The original meme put the number infected with connections to Sturgis at 88; the real number is 414. The original meme estimated the number of attendees at 450,000; the real number is 460,000. But "partly" or even "mostly" true apparently don't look as good as a Facebook warning overlay on some of these memes.

The larger problem with the USA Today fact check

One wonders how USA Today would have fact checked the claims in a (pseudo)scientific study that used computer modeling to determine that 260,000 Americans contracted COVID as a result of the Sturgis motorcycle rally, because that's really what the majority of this fact check is. This should be two separate fact checks, but it seems like the goal is to, for lack of a better term, is to include this questionable study so that we can slander the real numbers.

A Newsweek article on that study is headlined: "Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Linked to More Than 260,000 Coronavirus Cases, Economists Estimate." It's a horrible headline because the "Economists Estimate" at the end of the headline is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting, but is typical for Newsweek nowadays.

That's the bigger problem with the USA Today fact check; it brings in this questionable study by four economists at San Diego State University that is based on a computer model and was never peer-reviewed—all points USA Today, to their credit, notes—but why?

A recent study found the rally could have resulted in 260,000 cases. But the study has been criticized and faced some questions about its conclusions and methodology and it is not yet peer-reviewed.

Why, as purported fact check on a Bikers for Trump meme, are we shoehorning in this SDSU study that puts the number at 260,000? A number that is many orders of magnitude greater than 414, the number of actual, reported cases. [Note that even the 414 number may be inflated if reports like one from Sharyl Attkisson are accurate and one person was counted as a Sturgis-related case for passing through the community on I-90 while the rally was going on, but never actually stopping there or interacting with anyone there.]

The fact check seems designed to make people think that the 88 number is false and the real number is 260,000. The modern day digital equivalent of putting certain inconvenient facts on the jump, knowing most people don't follow it is to require people to scroll down at least one screen to find the necessary facts. With headers, navigation bars, and ads, I had to scroll down three full screen heights before I got to the paragraph explaining the real number was 414.

Yet, the featured video at the top of the fact check is all about the 260,000 number from the computer model.

USA Today Fact Check

None of the caveats about the study are present in the video. South Dakota officials are noted as disputing the study's numbers, but there is no substantive criticism like the one below, that is in the story, but isn't in the video.

South Dakota state epidemiologist Josh Clayton was critical of the study, noting it is not yet peer-reviewed.

"The results do not align with what we know for the impacts of the rally," Clayton said Sept. 8.

He also told the Washington Post that the study doesn’t account for an already-increasing trend of case counts in South Dakota or that school reopenings might have contributed to the rise.

Schools were reopening at the same time? Cases were trending up in South Dakota before Sturgis?

Of course, the biggest issue of all is that the contact tracing of people who came down with COVID in the month after Sturgis doesn't connect thousands of cases to the event, let alone more than a quarter of a million.

The fact check is a cross between burying the lede and an attempt to muddy the waters. I guarantee you that the casual observer upon encountering the meme and following Facebook's link to the fact check would tell you that the real number of people who caught COVID from the Sturgis event was more than 200,000. Why? Because they're presented with the 260,000 number first in the auto-play video above a headline that reads "Study shows Sturgis motorcycle rally was a COVID-19 'super-spreader'," and they're not scrolling down three full screens and reading the story that closely.

At the very least, this is journalistic malpractice. At worst, it's designed to promote a narrative, the facts be damned.

Our Horrible Media

Responsible journalism is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Note that I'm not saying "fair" or "nonpartisan" or "unbiased." Just responsible. Why did it take more than two weeks for USA Today to put an editor's note on the Abrams' story acknowledging numerous, substantive changes? Why does it bring in this study based on a model to muddy the waters about an alleged super-spreader event, when it has the real numbers right there?

Why not do a deep dive into the accuracy of the SDSU model on its on merits? Heck, why not re-visit that story today knowing what we know now about outdoor transmission and the Centers for Disease Control's updated mask guidance?


Because it doesn't serve the overall narrative. In Georgia, it's those Republicans who changed the voting laws are racist, vote suppressors who want to keep blacks from voting and caused MLB to move the All-Star Game. In South Dakota, it's that irresponsible Republican governor "allowed" Sturgis to happen and hundreds of thousands died because Republicans, like Donald Trump, didn't take COVID seriously.

Our horrible media isn't getting any better.


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April 2021



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