March 2, 2018

Jerome Corsi, the Washington bureau chief for the fringe media outlet Infowars, was kicked off YouTube Thursday evening, after three strikes for “violating community guidelines.” Corsi is a well-known conspiracist who wrote a book erroneously claiming Barack Obama was born in Kenya, promoted the lie that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager ran a child sex ring in a pizza parlor, and recently told followers that a train carrying members of Congress was derailed by a “Deep State counterattack” to distract from the GOP memo discrediting the FBI and from President Trump’s State of the Union address.

Corsi also has another credit to his name: guest columnist published in one of the nation’s largest-circulation and most influential newspapers. On Wednesday, USA Today published a column by Corsi advocating arming teachers to deter school shootings in “Opposing View,” a regular counterpoint to the editorial board’s opinion on any given issue.

The paper identified Corsi using the description provided by his publicist as an “investigative journalist and author,” without noting — until it was drawn to the editors’ attention after publication — Corsi’s employment by Infowars, the empire run by Alex Jones. Infowars’ radio show, video channels, and website, which reached 4.5 million people in the past month according to Quantcast, promotes tinfoil-hat ravings: that 9/11 was an “inside job,” that the government is doping frogs to make them gay, that school shooting victims are “crisis actors” faking tragedy to push gun control. The “Pizzagate” story that Corsi, Jones and the site promoted inspired a gullible gunman to shoot up a Washington pizza parlor in 2016, in search of enslaved children to free (there were none).

USA Today, known for its middle-of-the-road editorial perspective, reaches Americans across the country, including many who don’t read or trust other national papers on the two coasts. Since its founding in 1982, it has never endorsed a political candidate because it doesn’t want to presume to tell people in a diverse country what’s right for them (in 2016, the editorial page deemed Donald Trump “unfit” for office, but did not support his opponents). The paper’s reach and influence are great, and so is its responsibility to provide readers with factual information and commentary.

It’s healthy for the press to throw light on different points of view, and Corsi’s short column was a garden-variety recitation of the belief that armed good guys can stop armed bad guys, a view advanced by President Trump, the NRA and others.

But why use a crank who is not part of the reality-based information universe to deliver that message? By lending him their platform, USA Today draped a cloak of respectability on someone who spreads misinformation and chips away trust in fact-based news — including stories printed in USA Today and its sister Gannett papers across the country.

USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg told me that sharing a wide range of views is a guiding philosophy of his paper’s editorial page. “Nearly every day, we look for someone to disagree with us in the ‘Opposing View,’” for three good reasons: “Research shows readers appreciate more than one point of view and that’s one reason they see us as fair. It forces our editorial writers to be more intellectually rigorous because they know the other side’s views are right next to them or a click away, and finally, quite often the opposing views make news” by giving someone in the hotseat a chance to tell their story, he said, citing the head of Hawaii’s emergency management agency and the CEO of Equifax.

When Corsi’s piece on arming teachers was solicited, submitted, and edited — all under tight deadline Tuesday afternoon — staff involved were unaware of his full biography, Sternberg said. A cursory Google search or a glance at his Twitter feed would have revealed that for a week, Corsi has been blasting YouTube for warning him in the wake of conspiracies targeting the Parkland, Florida, student survivors that his channel was among those that could be terminated “for harassment and/or bullying.”

After receiving a deluge of incredulous emails Wednesday morning when Corsi’s column ran, USA Today added his Infowars job title to his short tagline, but did not explain that it is a conspiracy outlet.

“Knowing what I know now, we certainly would have had a discussion of this and reviewed possible alternatives” to find a different voice “within the time available to get this published,” Sternberg told me. Editors, he said, judge contributions on the “Moynihan rule,” named for the late New York senator who famously said, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts;” on that basis, Corsi’s column passed muster. “There was nothing factually inaccurate,” and thus no reason to retract it, he said.

Sternberg wouldn’t comment on possible consequences for the failure at USA Today to verify Corsi’s credibility as a source before publishing him, but said the editorial board would discuss improving vetting procedures.

There are two questions raised by the Corsi incident that every opinion editor should ask: First, what is the range of opinions your news outlet will publish or broadcast, and how would you justify  to your audience your decision to run or not run a controversial opinion? Second, are there certain voices so lacking in credibility or antithetical to the core value of journalism — seeking truth from facts — that you would refuse to lend them your platform?

USA Today’s opinion pages have long sought a wide diversity of views, years before the Trump Era sent more liberal editorial bastions scrambling to find conservative voices to showcase. New York Times’ editorial page editor James Bennet has come under fire for seeking out contrarian and impolitic voices. A newly hired tech blogger was let go hours later because of uproar over racially insensitive and homophobic social media posts. And the Times has been lambasted by some readers for hiring columnist Bret Stephens, who questions climate science, campus activism and the #MeToo movement, and wrote in defense of Woody Allen: “If Allen is in fact a pedophile, he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once.” Bennet also got heat for turning his page over to letters from Trump supporters for a day.

Nancy Ancrum, editorial page editor at the Miami Herald and co-chair of the Opinion Journalism Committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said Corsi’s piece reads like “a perfectly reasoned opinion” from someone who thinks teachers should be armed, but she is troubled by Infowars’ apparent “attempt to legitimize themselves by approaching a mainstream media outlet with a topic that’s in the news.”

She was critical of USA Today for failing to vet Corsi’s credentials and using his description of himself in the tagline. “Is he really an ‘investigative journalist?’” she said. “If he were, he’d know Sandy Hook [school shooting] was a real thing, and that there is a U.S. birth certificate for Barack Obama.”

At the same time, Ancrum is sympathetic to the paper’s effort to find a wide range of views. She’s running pro-Trump syndicated opinion columnists who “gloss over a lot,” she said, “but they’re not crazy and they’re not extremist.” She tells anyone to submit an op-ed and she’ll give it a fair reading, but said she’d find it difficult to publish something by a “a known liar and conspiracy theorist.  … It needs to be considered, but it also needs to be clear to readers who the person is.”

Ancrum said she would reject a neo-Nazi or anyone espousing “extremist, hateful views” for two reasons: because their positions would violate her community’s standards, and because they would lend the writer “a legitimacy they don’t deserve.”

David Plazas, opinion engagement editor at the Tennessean, part of Gannett’s USA Today Network, cited his paper’s four-part mission: to defend the First Amendment and freedom of information; to stand for civility; to fight for the voiceless; and to welcome a diversity of opinion.

Plazas, who co-chairs with Ancrum the ASNE Opinion Journalism committee, said his first big test in Nashville came not long after he arrived, when he published dueling opinions by a Vanderbilt professor advocating surveilling Muslims and a Muslim community leader.

Some readers “accused of us giving voice to someone who never should have had a platform in the paper because of racism, prejudice, and a history in middle Tennessee of repeated vandalism of mosques. They felt she was fanning the flames of bigotry that existed,” Plazas recalled. “I learned a lot from that: It’s important to understand the history of a community and context. As a new opinion editor I came in thinking ‘give equal weight to every voice’ and what I’ve learned since then is you don’t have to do that.”

It would contradict the values of democratic debate to silence unpopular voices. But I agree with Plazas that we must be mindful that “in America today there are alternate realities, and we have to be …  loyal to truth, accuracy and fairness” above all. “In an age where we’re being called ‘fake news’” by the president and other opponents of the press, “we have to work extra hard to help our credibility,” he said. That means vetting contributors and giving “readers as much context as possible about who the person is.”

The biggest blowback Sternberg faced at USA Today for an ‘Opposing View” before now was probably in January 2015 when he published a radical Islamic cleric who accused French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo of “provoking” the Muslims who launched a deadly attack by publishing offensive cartoons. Some prominent journalists criticized the column as promoting “both-sidesism,” but Sternberg stood his ground. “Unlike the terrorists, we believe in free expression and are not afraid of different opinions,” he told me.

So where does USA Today’s editorial page draw the line, and is there anyone — say David Duke, the white supremacist, former KKK Grand Wizard — from whom he would not accept an opinion column? As it happens, in 1991, the editorial page took a blistering stand against Duke when he ran for Louisiana governor, and gave him the chance to defend himself in “Opposing View.” The distinction, Sternberg said, was that Duke was given that platform as a Republican gubernatorial nominee, not as a former KKK leader.

“There are standards. We would not take a piece that’s factually untrue and would not take a piece that spews racism or incites hatred violence. Some of it you have to judge on a case-by-case basis,” Sternberg said. USA Today tries “to find credible people making credible arguments, but no matter who we run in today’s highly partisan atmosphere, we tend to get a lot of criticisms.” Sternberg paused. “There is a question of judgment involved in turning to this particular author.”

Your own opinions: yes. Your own facts: no. Responsible news outlets and digital media platforms don’t need to give space to people who actively spread disinformation and work at cross-purposes from the truth that our profession seeks. And yes, that includes a lot of media personalities more famous than Corsi.

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Indira Lakshmanan is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a Boston Globe columnist. She also served as the first Newmark…
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

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