When “Old News” Has Never Been Told:U.S. media produce excuses, not stories, on Downing Street Memo Julie Hollar and Peter Hart
August 12, 2005
Extra! July/August 2005
Journalists typically condemn attempts to force their colleagues to disclose anonymous sources, saying that subpoenaing reporters will discourage efforts to expose government wrongdoing. But such warnings seem like self-puffery after one watches contemporary journalism in action: When clear evidence of wrongdoing emerges, with no anonymous sources required, major news outlets can still virtually ignore it.
A leaked British government document that first appeared in a London newspaper (Sunday Times, 5/1/05) bluntly stated that U.S. intelligence on Iraq was shaped to support the drive for war. Though the information rocked British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s re-election campaign when it was exposed, for weeks it received little attention in the U.S. media.
What was dubbed the Downing Street Memo was a record of a July 23, 2002 meeting in Blair’s Downing Street office with the prime minister’s top advisors. The meeting was held to discuss Bush administration policy on Iraq, and the likelihood that Britain would support a U.S. invasion. “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided,” the minutes state.
The document also recounts the findings of Richard Dearlove, the head of the British intelligence service MI6, who had just returned from a visit to Washington: “There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Low interest in “fixed” facts
That last sentence is striking, to say the least, indicating that the policy of invading Iraq was determining what the Bush administration was presenting as “facts” derived from intelligence. But it provoked little media follow-up in the United States. The first substantial story in the mainstream press here came from the Knight Ridder wire service (5/6/05), which quoted an anonymous former U.S. official saying the memo was “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired” during Dearlove’s meetings in Washington.
The report came the day after Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.) sent a letter signed by 89 House Democrats to Bush, asking him to respond to the questions raised by the memo. But despite the new hook, few other outlets showed any interest in pursuing the leaked memo’s key charges. The Charleston (W.V.) Gazette (5/5/05) wrote an editorial about the memo and the Iraq War. A columnist for the Cox News Service (5/8/05) also mentioned the memo, as did columnist Molly Ivins (Chicago Tribune, 5/12/05).
While the mainstream media kept quiet, the Sunday Times report was circulating on the Internet, and citizens started to make some noise. In a brief segment on hot topics in the blogosphere (5/6/05), CNN correspondent Jackie Schechner reported that the memo was receiving attention on various websites, where bloggers were “wondering why it’s not getting more coverage in the U.S. media.” (Acknowledging the lack of coverage didn’t mean CNN was doing any better, though; the network had mentioned the memo in only two earlier stories, both about Blair’s re-election campaign—5/1/05, 5/2/05.)
It wasn’t hard to gauge the media’s interest in the Downing Street story: At the first Bush press conference (5/31/05) since the memo was leaked, not one of the nearly 20 reporters called on asked Bush to respond to its damning contents. And that was part of a pattern—as Salon’s Eric Boehlert pointed out (6/9/05), over a month after the Times broke the story:
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has held 19 daily briefings, at which he has fielded approximately 940 questions from reporters, according to the White House’s online archives. Exactly two of those questions have been about the Downing Street Memo and the White House’s reported effort to fix prewar intelligence.
Even direct questioning yielded some peculiar responses: When finally confronted by CNN (5/16/05), McClellan claimed he hadn’t seen the memo, but that nonetheless “the reports” about it were “flat-out wrong.”
Two weeks to the front page
Following calls by FAIR (5/10/05, 5/20/05) and other progressive groups for more mainstream coverage of the Downing Street Memo, a few major outlets published reports—first the Los Angeles Times on page 3 (5/12/05), then the Washington Post on page 18 (5/13/05). The Minneapolis Star Tribune (5/13/05) ran a piece headlined, “U.S. Anger Over War Memo Is Slight: The Report of a Secret British Document Was Explosive There, but Americans Aren’t Dwelling on the Debate Over Invading Iraq.” Star Tribune readers might have been surprised that their lack of anger was news, since up until that day they wouldn’t have known from reading their paper what they might have to be angry about.
Finally, more than two weeks after it broke in Britain, the Downing Street Memo made the front page of a major U.S. newspaper, the Chicago Tribune (5/17/05).
Other outlets took even longer. After referring to the memo (5/2/05) in a story on the British electoral campaign, the New York Times didn’t report on the document’s implications about the Bush administration until May 20; that one-column story didn’t mention the manipulation of intelligence until the eighth paragraph. (Times columnist Paul Krugman also discussed the memo on the paper’s opinion page on May 16, as did fellow columnist Bob Herbert on June 2.)
The smattering of coverage in print and on CNN did not inspire the broadcast networks to break their near silence on the issue. The first mention of the memo FAIR found on the major networks came on ABC’s Sunday morning show This Week (5/15/05), in which host George Stephanopoulos questioned Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) about it. When McCain declared that he didn’t “agree with it” and defended the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, Stephanopoulos dropped the subject.
Three weeks later, when Republican Party chair Ken Mehlman appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert (6/5/05) brought up what he called the “now-famous Downing Street Memo”—a peculiar characterization, considering that it was the first time the “famous” memo had been mentioned on NBC.
The sustained activism around the Downing Street Memo compelled some in the media to explore why it had elicited such little coverage. The New York Times’ new public editor, Byron Calame, took up the case in his first foray into representing readers (NYTimes.com, 5/20/05), prompted by what he called “a flood of reader email.”
According to Calame, Times Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman explained that he felt the Downing Street Memo was simply the “interpretation” of the British head of intelligence and therefore “not a smoking gun that proved that Bush, Tenet and others were distorting intelligence to support the case for war.” Calame deemed Taubman’s defense “holding fast to a high reporting standard.” Given the extremely flimsy evidence the Times required for stories that supported the Bush administration’s drive for war, that would seem to be not a high standard but a double standard.
NPR cast a more critical eye on the Times’ coverage of the memo. On the May 22 Weekend Edition, NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr called the memo “the under-covered story of the year,” singling out the New York Times for its failure to “get around to reporting it until last week and on an inside page, apparently no big deal.” While the criticism is on target, it’s a curious exercise in finger-pointing, since the story was apparently even less of a big deal at NPR, which had run exactly zero reports on the memo up to that point—a fact that went unmentioned in Schorr’s report.
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler (5/8/05) initially noted that Post readers had complained about the lack of reporting on the memo, but offered no explanation for why the paper virtually ignored the story; the next week, after FAIR referred in a media advisory (5/10/05) to Getler’s lack of comment, he revisited the issue (5/15/05) in much more detail. (The ombud gave backhanded credit to FAIR and the group Media Matters for America—both “self-described media watchdog organizations”—for prompting him to delve into the story.)
In his second column on the subject, Getler wrote that Post editors initially told him they didn’t pursue the story because they were “tied up with [British] election coverage”—despite the fact that the leaked memo was a major election story in Britain and likely contributed to the weak returns for Tony Blair’s Labor Party. When Getler questioned editors again after his first column, he wrote, they “agreed that this story should be covered and said they were going to go back and do that”; the Post’s May 13 story followed.
Getler called investigation of the memo’s conclusions “journalistically mandatory” and suggested that the Post story should have been placed on the front page.
The Chicago Tribune (5/17/05) named several factors that had caused “less than a robust discussion” of the British memo: Aside from the White House’s denials, and the media’s slow reaction, the paper asserted that “the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war.” Of course, it’s hard to judge the public’s interest in a story the media have largely shielded them from.
The dog ate my exposť
A breakthrough of sorts came on June 7, when Blair and Bush held a joint press conference at the White House. The press conference marked the first occasion that Bush was asked directly about the memo, presenting media outlets with a curious dilemma: how to cover new developments in a month-old story that they had largely ignored.
USA Today’s June 8 story, “‘Downing Street Memo’ Gets Fresh Attention,” was actually the paper’s first mention of the story. “USA Today chose not to publish anything about the memo before today for several reasons,” the paper explained, with senior assignment editor for foreign news Jim Cox giving a rather unusual defense: “We could not obtain the memo or a copy of it from a reliable source. There was no explicit confirmation of its authenticity from [Blair’s office]. And it was disclosed four days before the British elections, raising concerns about the timing.”
The full text of the memo—which has never been disavowed by the Blair government—was widely available, first published by the Sunday Times with their May 1 article and posted immediately to their website. The memo’s emergence just before the British election made it more newsworthy, not less—unless one maintains that something likely to influence world events should therefore receive less media attention.
Several papers—including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Portland Oregonian and USA Today—tried to shift the blame for their lack of coverage to the Associated Press, which provides many of their national and international stories, and which didn’t put a Downing Street Memo story on the wire for more than a month (6/7/05). AP explained (Salon, 6/14/05) that editors “didn’t necessarily see the document as a clear-cut case of proving the manipulation of intelligence” and that “the demands of other important stories kept diverting them.”
Man bites dog bites man
Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank (6/8/05), who referred to progressive activists trying to bring media attention to the memo as “wing nuts,” wrote that Bush being asked a question about the memo “ended a slightly strange episode in the American media in which the potentially explosive report out of London had become a seldom acknowledged elephant in the room.” Milbank offered a variety of explanations for that odd phenomenon:
In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn’t election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it’s also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O’Neill and Bob Woodward, among others. The memo was also more newsworthy across the Atlantic because it reinforced the notion there that Blair has been acting as Bush’s “poodle.”
This catalog of rationalizations deserves some scrutiny. Milbank had reported the same day (6/8/05) that his paper’s latest poll showed that only 41 percent of Americans approved of the Iraq war—leading one to wonder when exactly the war would cross the threshold and become unpopular enough to report on honestly.
Milbank’s second defense—that the memo isn’t news because similar stories had been “widely reported”—would seem to contradict his third explanation, that the memo was news in the U.K. because it confirmed existing suspicions.
Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley opted for sarcasm over serious discussion (6/12/05), deriding activists for sending him emails “demanding that I cease my personal cover-up of something called the Downing Street Memo.” Kinsley, tongue planted firmly in cheek, thought all the fuss was a good sign for the left: “Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes ideological self-confidence.”
Kinsley’s mockery seemed to serve no purpose, since he retreated to what had by then become a familiar media defense: “Of course, you don’t need a secret memo to know” that the Bush administration wanted war, so this simply isn’t news. In short, people who demand more coverage of the memo have a “paranoid theory” that accurately portrays White House decision-making on Iraq.
“Not the Dead Sea Scrolls”
The New York Times’ Todd Purdum (6/14/05) echoed the “we-already-knew-this” angle. Though Bush and Blair opponents “see the documents as proof that both men misled their countries into war,” Purdum argued, “the documents are not quite so shocking. . . . The memos are not the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The notion that Bush was determined to oust Hussein, he explained, was “conventional wisdom” at the time the memos were written, and “there has been ample evidence for many months, and even years, that top Bush administration figures saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002.”
Purdum’s argument, like the similar arguments of his colleagues, is revealing: By acknowledging the “ample evidence” that indicates a secret, publicly denied Bush administration decision to invade Iraq, but then dismissing it as old news, journalists manage to avoid saying that the Bush administration lied to the American public—something they are exceedingly reluctant to do (Extra!, 1–2/05).
Salon columnist Joe Conason (5/6/05) posed this question about the story:
Are Americans so jaded about the deceptions perpetrated by our own government to lead us into war in Iraq that we are no longer interested in fresh and damning evidence of those lies? Or are the editors and producers who oversee the American news industry simply too timid to report that proof on the evening broadcasts and front pages?
The answer to Conason’s second question would seem to be yes. A May 8 New York Times news article asserted that “critics who accused the Bush administration of improperly using political influence to shape intelligence assessments have, for the most part, failed to make the charge stick.” It’s hard for charges to stick when major media are determined to ignore the evidence behind them—and call people “nuts” when they insist that media pay attention.