An Open Window on Activist Journalism

It's rare when a national newspaper openly flaunts its woke-activist journalism.  But that is exactly what USA Today has done.

In a subscriber-only print section, entitled "Impact Report: A look back at stories that led to change in 2022," (online overview here) USA Today informs us of its work in the service of cultural change.  This special section is essentially twelve pages of self-congratulation.  But importantly, it is a revealing look at the Gannett organization's editorial principles and priorities.

Recall that USA Today's introduction in 1982 was controversial for several reasons -- such as a catchy design catering to the eye, the liberal use of color in an era of mainly black and white, and most notorious, its compact reporting, with the typical article maybe a few hundred words in total length, and short on depth.  They liked to think of their reporting as concise, but a charitable description might be superficial.  It earned the newspaper the nickname "McPaper."

USA Today rather quickly claimed to be the number one newspaper in the USA.  Its free distribution in numerous hotel chains around the country -- rather like CNN in airports -- may have had something to do with that. Copies distributed does not equal copies read.

In her introduction to the special 2022 Impact Report section, Editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll explains that "journalism makes a difference in people's lives every day."  She says that USA Today "stood up for consumers, held the powerful accountable, and protected the vulnerable."  Roughly three dozen individual features in the special section document the results of actions by USA Today Network-affiliated newspapers.  Many of these are "worthy" insofar as they deal with human-interest situations, elder abuse, veteran hardship, and so on -- "exposing wrongs" according to the newspaper.  But many others are driven by leftist ideology.

One full page is devoted to "climate change" -- "From extreme weather to dwindling water supplies, we show the impact of climate change, documenting its effects on people across the world" -- which proceeds immediately to conflate and confuse "climate" with ordinary "weather."  USA Today is also concerned with "how climate change impacts working-class and minority communities."

Another full page describes USA Today's creation of a Voting Rights Guide, necessary because "ordinary Americans were seeing their power at the ballot box erode in many places during a time of civic upset."  The project is ostensibly non-partisan and "fact-based," but USA Today's partnering with the Brennan Center for Justice is anything but an assurance of objectivity. According to Influence Watch, the Brennan Center "pursues a left-wing issue agenda supporting liberal activist policies" and its claimed non-partisanship is a "charade."

Of course, it is not reasonable to expect USA Today to be unbiased.  It is rated by Allsides as left-leaning, their same rating as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, NPR and the TV broadcast networks, to name a few, and is rated as left-center by Media Fact Check.  Yet journalists in general see themselves as the "sensible center," departing from the views of the general public, and don't see a need to report both sides of an issue, or even to exhibit honesty.  USA Today had to "unpublish" 23 articles when one of their reporters "penned articles in which 'some individuals quoted were not affiliated with the organizations claimed and appeared to be fabricated.'"

USA Today especially despised Donald Trump. From its founding, USA Today avoided endorsing candidates for office, but made a partial exception "on September 29, 2016, when it published an op-ed piece condemning the candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump, calling him 'unfit for the presidency,'" yet without endorsing his opponent Hillary Clinton.  Four years later, still harboring its loathing of Trump, USA Today broke with tradition fully and expressly endorsed Joe Biden in his run against Trump in 2020.

This comes at a time when our government contemplates new public policy "to help local journalism and combat misinformation." A new Government Accountability Office report says that "the market may not produce public interest content sufficient for a well-informed society." The GAO attributes this to the ill-conceived and ever-subjective notion of "market failure" but not to possibly corrupt journalism.  Government policy to address the issue might include "tax incentives or credits, direct government funding, government advertising, federal grants or loans, and even government intervention" to serve the equally nebulous "public good." The initiative is targeted primarily at local news and is one more instance of government schemes to manipulate the media.

Media manipulation and news management, often having the character of propaganda, seem to permeate every quarter of journalism. The AP Stylebook, a ubiquitous journalistic reference, now discourages the use of "the" in connection with people or groups as "dehumanizing" -- so you must avoid "the French" or "the disabled."  But of course, this comes from The Associated Press (which in humiliation deleted the original preposterous tweet).

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., its former executive editor and now a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, helps us understand the principles and practice of today's journalism.

"More and more journalists of color and younger White reporters, including LGBTQ+ people, in increasingly diverse newsrooms believe that the concept of objectivity has prevented truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view."

And if there was any remaining doubt, that attitude lives and breathes at USA Today:

"At USA Today, editor in chief Nicole Carroll told us she seeks a diversity of staff participants, experiences and views in daily brainstorming sessions about news coverage. In these discussions, Carroll said, she and her editors 'have found more value in diverse people's lived experiences.' She has no prohibitions against staff members working on stories involving their identities or life experiences unless they demonstrate a strong bias."

The Wall Street Journal by comparison shows us what honest, direct journalism looks like, quite distinct from the crusading nature of today's reporting and from our government's contempt for its citizens.  In the annual letter to readers, WSJ publisher Almar Latour marks the distinction succinctly:

"Hyperbole, infatuation with spectacle and thinly sourced media reports with alarmist headlines -- prevalent in what passes for news today -- cloud personal judgment and stifle nuanced societal debate. By contrast, reliable, unbiased journalism, data and analysis can help determine the difference between good outcomes and bad ones."

As a committed woke enterprise, USA Today will not change its ways, nor should we expect it to do so. Thomas Jefferson sensibly observed that "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government." In that light, does USA Today's approach to journalism benefit our culture, our society and our nation? We might conclude, as observed by the pseudonymous W.R. Wordsworth, that "their success depends on public ignorance."

But on the other hand, inasmuch as the GAO discovered a dearth of "content sufficient for a well-informed society," maybe USA Today itself is one cause of that ignorance.

The author is an observer of politics recently escaped from Connecticut.

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