By Lee Williams
The editor’s note posted at the end of the stories says all you need to know: “For this project, USA TODAY partnered with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to improving public understanding of gun violence, increasing accountability and identifying solutions.”
For those of you who may not have heard of The Trace, here’s some background information:
- The Trace describes itself as the “only newsroom dedicated to reporting on gun violence.”
- It has slick digital packages that are chockfull of stories, photos and videos, so it’s easy to confuse The Trace with an actual news website. But a news website it is not.
- The Trace was founded in 2015 by former New York City mayor and staunch gun-control advocate, Michael Bloomberg.
- The Trace operates as the propaganda arm for Bloomberg’s anti-gun groups, which include Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, which Bloomberg also bankrolls.
- Like his other groups, the Trace advocates for more restrictive gun laws, but their message is a lot slicker than the handmade signs carried by Demanding Moms and Everytown employees.
- Reporters at the Trace are advocates and activists, not news reporters.
To sum up, The Trace masquerades as a legitimate news source without disclosing that it is a gun control advocacy group financed by an anti-gun billionaire. Over the years more than a few members of the legacy media have fallen for its deceptive practices. USA TODAY sure did, despite the newspaper’s highly touted ethical principles, which should have stopped the partnership long before it even began.
Together, the Gannett-owned newspaper and the anti-gun advocacy group co-produced a series of stories titled: “Off Target: The ATF Catches Thousands of Lawbreaking Gun Dealers Every Year. It Shuts Down Very Few.”
In one of the most sweeping examinations of ATF inspection records, The Trace and USA TODAY found that the federal agency in charge of policing the gun industry has been largely toothless and conciliatory, bending over backward to go easy on wayward dealers like Uncle Sam’s — and sometimes allowing guns to flow into the hands of criminals.
Gun industry lobbyists have fought for decades against tougher oversight by casting gun dealers as among the most heavily regulated businesses in the U.S. But The Trace and USA TODAY’s review found that dealers are largely immune from serious punishment and enjoy layers of protection unavailable to most other industries.
Reporters spent more than a year analyzing documents from nearly 2,000 gun dealer inspections that uncovered violations from 2015 to 2017. The reports showed some dealers outright flouting the rules, selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to investigators and fudging records to mask their unlawful conduct. In many cases when the ATF caught dealers breaking the law, the agency issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed the stores to operate for months or years. Others are still selling guns to this day.
For their series, USA TODAY went all-in with The Trace. Not only did they allow reporters from The Trace to work on the series, they teamed with their editors and production staff, too.
To be clear, the newspaper relinquished editorial control to an issue advocacy group, which is unprecedented.
According to the newspaper’s The team behind the Off Target project:
- There were five Trace reporters and three reporters from USA TODAY working on the project.
- There was one graphic artist from The Trace and one from USA TODAY.
- There was one social media, engagement and promotion staffer from The Trace and four from USA TODAY.
- There were two Trace editors overseeing and directing the investigative project, and one editor from USA TODAY.
Gannett is the largest newspaper chain in the world. It has more than 100 daily newspapers and more than 1,000 weeklies. It uses its “Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms” as a way to keep control of its thousands of journalists.
The partnership between The Trace and USA TODAY clearly violates many of these stated ethical principles:
Exercising fair play:
- We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story and not take sides in news coverage.
- We will maintain an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.
- We will be free of improper obligations to news sources, newsmakers and advertisers.
Ensuring the Truth Principle:
- We will not intentionally slant the news.
Conducting investigative reporting:
- Evaluate legal and ethical issues fully, involving appropriate colleagues, superiors, lawyers or dispassionate outside parties in the editorial process. (For example, it may be helpful to have a technical story reviewed by a scientist for accuracy, or have financial descriptions assessed by an accountant, or consult an ethicist or respected outside editor on an ethical issue.)
- Be careful about trading information with sources or authorities, particularly if it could lead to an impression that you are working in concert against an individual or entity.
- Protect against being manipulated by advocates and special interests.
I’ve stated multiple times that the legacy media couldn’t care less about facts, accuracy, fairness, or ethics if it involves an anti-gun story – anything goes. This, however, actually partnering with an anti-gun advocacy group, is a new low.
The work product this partnership created is clearly propaganda, not journalism, and should be treated as such.
I wonder when USA TODAY will partner with NRA, GOA, NSSF or perhaps even the SAF? It would seem to be the fair thing to do.
I’m not holding my breath.
Nowadays, there are few journalism watchdogs left – a couple of nonprofits staffed by semi-retired former editors who needed a paycheck. I wonder whether they will even notice USA TODAY’s complete disregard for its own ethics. Since it involves an anti-gun story, I wonder whether they will even care.
A personal note
I called and sent an email seeking comment for this story to Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA TODAY network and publisher of USA TODAY.
I have yet to receive a reply.
I should point out that Ms. Wadsworth and I have a bit of history. When she learned that one of her editors in Sarasota operated a pro-gun website, she ordered it immediately shut down. She had me fired a few months later.
I’m still kind of proud of that.
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This story is part of the Second Amendment Foundation’s Investigative Journalism Project and is published here with their permission.