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Stacey Abrams scrubs boycott support from op-ed after MLB departure

Quietly revised column takes much firmer stance against boycotting.

Updated: April 28, 2021 - 10:48pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

USA Today earlier this month quietly scrubbed an op-ed by Stacey Abrams of language offering conditional support for business boycotts, with the stealthy edits coming shortly after Major League Baseball announced its own boycott of the state over its recent voting reform law. 

Abrams — whose historic get-out-the-vote effort in Georgia was widely hailed as one of the primary drivers of both Joe Biden's presidential victory and the Senate-tipping wins of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — has been among the most vocal critics of Georgia's voting law. Passed by the state's GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the measure made modest reforms, including a voter ID requirement, to tighten up election security. Democratic critics, including President Biden, have condemned the changes as voter suppression tactics reminiscent of Jim Crow laws. 

Talk of boycotting Georgia began shortly after the law was passed. In an op-ed originally published on March 31, Abrams gave tacit support to theoretical boycotts of her home state, arguing that "until we hear clear, unequivocal statements that show Georgia-based companies get what's at stake, I can't argue with an individual's choice to opt for their competition."

The boycott-friendly language remained in the article until late in the day on April 6, just a few days after Major League Baseball said it would be moving its annual All-Star Game out of Georgia in protest of the new law. By about 3:30 p.m. on Apr. 6, Abrams's remark about "an individual's choice" to boycott had been removed without explanation. 

In the altered article that appeared after MLB's boycott announcement, Abrams added language taking a more unequivocal stand against boycotting, urging corporations to "speak out against our law" rather than abandon the state and arguing that the "monetary loss [of a boycott]" is "unlikely to affect the stubborn, frightened Republicans who see voter suppression as their only way to win." 

In the rewrite, Abrams also informed her readers that "boycotts invariably also cost jobs," an observation omitted from the original column.

Still, the column contains language praising the popular impulse to boycott Georgia, calling that response "impassioned (and understandable)". Abrams notes that "the advancement of civil rights [in the U.S.] has relied heavily on economic boycotts."

Perhaps most notably, the article contains a subheadline arguing that boycotts are "not necessary — yet," a warning that Abrams could encourage such action in the future.  That language was in the original body of the op-ed; though Abrams removed that text in her revision, it survives in the current version as a subhead, effectively conveying the same message.

The original column had started with the blunt statement: "Boycotts work. The focused power of No, trained on corporate actors used to being told Yes, can yield transformative results."

In the revised version, Abrams still argues that boycotts "work," stipulating that they are effective only when "the target risks losing something highly valued and the pain becomes unbearable."

Abrams in both the original and revised columns advises potential boycotters to "share" the burden of such activism, and to be prepared for "a long-term commitment to action."

Fact-checker relied on edited column to defend Abrams from criticism 

USA Today made no immediate mention of its editing of Abrams's column. As late as April 21, over two weeks after making the edits, USA Today made no mention of the significant changes made to the op-ed. 

The op-ed is currently appended with an editor's note reading: "This column was originally published before the MLB moved the All-Star game out of Atlanta. It was updated after that decision." It offers readers no clarification as to what updates were made to the article. USA Today did not respond to requests for comment on why the changes were made or when Abrams contacted the paper to edit her column. 

The revised op-ed, meanwhile, was used in at least one media fact-check to defend Abrams from critics accusing her of supporting boycotts in the state. A PolitiFact fact-check on April 21 cited in part Abrams's Mar. 31 article to defend her against charges of supporting boycotts, utilizing the quote: "Boycotts invariably also cost jobs." The fact-check did not mention that the article had been updated.

The PolitiFact staff writer who composed that fact-check, Amy Sherman, did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not she was aware of the edits made to Abrams's column before she ran the fact-check. 

USA Today itself maintains its own in-house fact-checking program. Last year it became part of Facebook's stable of fact-checkers, and has also been deemed "compliant" with the principles of the International Fact-Checking Network. Those principles affirm that fact-checking outlets must "exhibit a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness, transparency of sources, transparency of funding and organization, transparency of methodology, and a commitment to open and honest corrections" while running fact checks. 

The IFCN did not respond when asked whether USA Today's stealthy editing of the Abrams op-ed might endanger its certification with the group.

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