Things are starting to look really bad for USA Today. BellSouth’s demand for a retraction is strongly and clearly worded:
“BellSouth insists that your newspaper retract the false and unsubstantiated statements you have made regarding our company,” BellSouth said in a letter to USA Today President Craig Moon and the general counsel at the newspaper’s parent company Gannett Co.
These are not the actions of a company that wants the story to go away. BellSouth’s denials look credible. USA Today reports that its staff will be investigating over the weekend. BellSouth’s denial comes at a bad time for the paper, as we also learned today about reporter Leslie Cauley’s ties to the Democratic Party.
People like Sen. Orrin Hatch have all but confirmed the existence of some kind of NSA phone program. The question is, if the phone companies’ denials are right, how did USA Today get the details of the program so wrong?
This is important, because the phone companies’ cooperation with the NSA is the only component of the program as it was described by USA Today that has raised serious legal questions (as opposed to unserious allegations that it violates the Fourth Amendment, which it clearly does not under a precedent set by Smith v. Maryland). The phone companies’ cooperation with the NSA has led lawyers to fall all over themselves in a rush to file class-action lawsuits against them, yet that is the part of the story that all three companies have said is totally false.
It is unlikely that the phone companies are engaged in high-profile lying — such a strategy would be far too risky. Was USA Today led astray by bad sources? What else about the story was inaccurate?