This week, I did something that USA Today’s executive leadership apparently hadn’t done lately: I read the newspaper’s “principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms.”
It’s pretty highfalutin. The media manifesto of virtue, posted online, applies to all employees “working with any news platform, including newspapers, websites, mobile devices, video, social media channels, and live story events.”
Whether writing online or covering breaking developments, USA Today’s journalists are supposedly committed to:
- Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way.
- Serving the public interest.
- Exercising fair play.
- Acting with integrity.
Now, let’s compare the lofty rhetoric with low-blow reality.
On Sunday, 21-year-old University of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy. He gave a gracious, emotional speech that celebrated his faith in God, respect for his fellow athletes, love of family, lifelong work ethic, and team spirit.
“I’ve worked my whole life to fulfill my goals, but at the same time, I know there’s a higher power looking down on me. He enables me to do all things. For that I’m grateful—for the many blessings that God has blessed me with,” Murray humbly told reporters.
But one reporter wasn’t interested in covering the actual news of the Heisman winner’s triumph. He was interested in sabotaging it.
Within hours of the press conference, USA Today sports writer Scott Gleeson penned an article attacking Murray for posting “tweets using an anti-gay slur.” Murray and family awoke Monday morning to a barrage of character smears slamming his “homophobic” posts from six years ago—when Murray was 14 or 15 years old and jokingly called his friends “queer.”
Google is now clogged with wall-to-wall coverage of his teenage antics from CNN to the “Today” show to every sports outlet and his hometown Oklahoma newspaper.
Gleeson’s hit piece reeks of deceptive vigilantism, not journalism. After noting that Murray had a “Saturday to remember,” Gleeson wrote that “the Oklahoma quarterback’s memorable night also helped resurface social media’s memory of several homophobic tweets more than six years old.”
Who “resurfaced social media’s memory”? Why, it was Gleeson himself! By creating an illusion that Murray’s schoolboy tweets were the subject of any scrutiny and outrage other than Gleeson’s own, USA Today gave us a shining example of the manufacturing of fake news. Ain’t misleading passive voice grand?
Indeed, Gleeson’s own biography is one of a social justice advocate dedicated to identity politics propaganda. “My enterprise and human interest work on the LGBT movement in sports made me an APSE award finalist in 2016 and a USBWA award winner in 2017,” Gleeson boasts.
Was he aiming for another award with his ambush of Murray? Gleeson certainly got his new scalp and paraded it prominently, with aiding and abetting by USA Today’s silent, AWOL editors. Within hours of publication, Murray had apologized.
Gleeson’s new headline blared: “Kyler Murray apologizes for homophobic tweets that resurfaced after he won Heisman Trophy.”
On Tuesday, I wrote to USA Today’s editor in chief Nicole Carroll and executive editor for news Jeff Taylor with the following questions:
- How does Gleeson’s article comport with USA Today’s stated principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms?
- Specifically, how did the piece “serve the public interest,” “exercise fair play,” exhibit “fairness in relations with people unaccustomed to dealing with news media,” observe “standards of decency,” and demonstrate “integrity”?
- And have there been any executive leadership discussions about the piece since its publication and widespread public backlash?
The editors have not responded yet. In the meantime, I have more questions.
How does lying in wait for unknown months or years (when Gleeson could have “resurfaced” the old tweets at any time) and publishing a smear in the middle of the night before giving Murray a chance to respond comport with the newspaper’s promises that:
“We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news—with relevancy, persistence, context, thoroughness, balance, and fairness in mind.
“We will seek to gain understanding of the communities, individuals and issues we cover to provide an informed account of activities.
“We will uphold First Amendment principles to serve the democratic process.
“We will reflect and encourage understanding of the diverse segments of our community.
“We will provide editorial and community leadership.
“We will treat people with respect and compassion.
“We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story.
“We will give particular attention to fairness in relations with people unaccustomed to dealing with the news media.
“We will act honorably and ethically in dealing with news sources, the public and our colleagues.
“We will observe standards of decency.”
Will the editors respond publicly to criticism and address readers and employees so that their actions match these words?
“We will explain to audiences our journalistic processes to promote transparency and engagement.
“We will correct errors promptly.
“We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions.”