When the president says it, does that mean it’s automatically worth publishing? The question has vexed the news media for more than a year, rising to the surface yet again on Wednesday with an op-ed by Donald Trump in USA Today.
Fact-checkers immediately identified a number of whoppers in the piece, while various members of the media questioned the newspaper’s decision to run it at all. Whether it’s written by the president or a writer toiling in obscurity, the critics argued, the editorial standards still apply.
“The president does not have a free pass,” former New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told CNN. “Our standard at the Times was that we do not print things that we knew not to be true, whether it was a letter, an editorial, a column or an op-ed. If a letter writer said something that was false, we would require them to correct or we wouldn’t run it.”
Marjorie Pritchard, the op-ed page editor at the Boston Globe, echoed that.
“All submissions must go through a robust and rigorous editing process, which includes fact-checking and attribution,” Pritchard told CNN in an email. “The op-ed page presents varying opinions on issues of the day, but they need to be based on facts, not on inaccuracies or outright lies. It is crucial that we hold the president to the same standards we demand of other contributors.”
When the Times accepted an op-ed from Vladimir Putin in 2013, Rosenthal said it was thoroughly fact-checked. Barack Obama received the same treatment from the Times opinion editors. Other dignitaries didn’t even make it to the page.
(James Bennet, Rosenthal’s successor at the Times op-ed page, declined to comment, saying he “wouldn’t feel right second-guessing our colleagues over at USA Today.”)
“We turned down op-eds from extremely high-ranking people all the time,” Rosenthal said. “We turned them down if they were self-serving, repetitive, full of lies.”
On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s chief fact-checker Glenn Kessler also lamented the decision to run Trump’s op-ed, which attacked the Democrats’ proposal for a single-payer health care system.
Chief among the untruths in the piece was Trump’s claim that “Democrats have already harmed seniors by slashing Medicare by more than $800 billion over 10 years to pay for Obamacare,” which Kessler called a “tired 2012 talking point” that ignores how “solvency was extended and benefits were expanded.”
“How can @usatoday allow Trump [to] publish an article with documented falsehoods?” Kessler said on Twitter.
Bill Sternberg, USA Today’s editorial page editor, defended the decision, saying the op-ed was held to the paper’s standards.
“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,” Sternberg said in a statement. “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.”
That “wide leeway” allowed Trump to produce a column in which, according to Kessler, “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.” In one instance, Trump claimed that he fulfilled a campaign promise to “protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and create new health care insurance options that would lower premiums.”
Kessler wrote Wednesday that Trump broke that promise with his support for a Republican plan that weakened protections for pre-existing conditions and that experts have said premiums would be even lower in some states if not for the president’s efforts to undermine Obamacare.
USA Today has at least one defender in John McCormick, the editorial page editor for the Chicago Tribune. McCormick sympathized with Sternberg over the challenge of fact-checking op-eds, and said he didn’t object to the paper providing Trump with a platform.
“When the newly-inaugurated Barack Obama reminded all of us that elections have consequences, he was thinking like an opinion editor,” McCormick said. “We shouldn’t fault USA Today for lending its soapbox to a president addressing so important an issue. Yes, we do fact-check op-eds, but that’s easier said than done when a piece has so many broad brush strokes.”
McCormick suggested that USA Today could have also run a companion piece to put Trump’s argument in context, be it a health care economist or staff writer “who can help readers think about the op-ed’s weaknesses and strengths.”
The controversy surrounding the USA Today op-ed has echoes of other Trump era media disputes – from whether to cover his free-wheeling rallies to the seemingly daily dilemma over how to report on his Twitter activity. Last month, the Post’s fact-checking team documented what it called a “tsunami of untruths” uttered by Trump over a two-day period that brought his total number of false or misleading claims past 5,000 on his 601st day in office.
In either case, whether he is speaking from behind a podium or composing a tweet, Trump’s words are often untruthful. And in either case, they pretty much always get widely reported.
“I think the idea that every word the president utters has inherent news value is a trap,” Rosenthal said. “Just because the president says it, that doesn’t make it news. And just because he writes it, it doesn’t make it news. I do not think the president of the United States has absolute access to media. He doesn’t.”