Not the way to write a note to our readers

Not the way to write a note to our readers: I don’t want to break my long-running practice of not blogging about politics, public policy or war, however, I find USA Today’s note to its readers a rather interesting challenge to parse and decipher. I guess because I didn’t closely follow the NSA-tracks-phone-calls story when it first was reported, I’m not quite following the clarification. To me (reading it with only a general idea of the context), it sounds like during preparation of the original story, the USA Today reporters gave certain officials at the phone companies the chance to respond to classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” types of questions and when they responded, “We don’t comment about wife beating,” they ran the story.

For example, here is a quote from today’s “note”:

“At the time, BellSouth did not deny participation in the program, but it issued a statement saying the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any government agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon said that it would not comment on national security matters and that it acts “in full compliance with the law” and with respect for customers’ privacy.”

Again, this is not a comment on the original reporting and decision to run a story based on the supposition that truth is the same as absence of denial. However, it’s merely a suggestion that this “clarification” or whatever it is, is worth re-printing for future generations of journalism students. It should be filed under the heading “How not to write a note to readers.”

It includes what has to be one of the classics of non-clarifying clarification ever written:

“USA TODAY also spoke again with the sources who had originally provided information about the scope and contents of the domestic calls database. All said the published report accurately reflected their knowledge and understanding of the NSA program, but none could document a contractual relationship between BellSouth or Verizon and the NSA, or that the companies turned over bulk calling records to the NSA. Based on its reporting after the May 11 article, USA TODAY has now concluded that while the NSA has built a massive domestic calls record database involving the domestic call records of telecommunications companies, the newspaper cannot confirm that BellSouth or Verizon contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records to that database.

Broken down, that paragraph says, “Our sources can’t confirm that calling records were turned over to NSA, but based on our reporters who talked with those sources, we have now concluded that NSA has built such a database of calls — but we can’t confirm it.

If you’re tempted to ever run a “clarification” written like this, I think it would be better to skip the whole thing. All it clarifies to me is that at some point, USA Today has stopped beating its wife.