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Asleep at the Wheel

The media’s perplexing performance on the Downing Street memo
American Journalism Review
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder is AJR's Editor and Senior Vice President.

Back before I became obsessed with journalism, I was obsessed with drag racing.

I loved nothing more than heading to South Jersey–-there were no drag strips in Philadelphia–-to Atco or Vineland, to see just how quickly my '60 Chevy (the one with the spray-painted gold wheels and Sun tach and lakes pipes) could navigate the quarter mile.

It was my good fortune to do this on a number of occasions with the Untouchables, a car club based in Philly's western suburbs whose members' red shirts featured an embroidered roller skate enhanced by a huge, souped-up engine.

Besides fast cars, the Untouchables loved a rock 'n' roll singer named Big Al Downing. And there was a strict code. If someone said "Big Al Downing," the only correct response was "Better than Fats Domino."

Big Al Downing I got. What I don't get is the American news media's tepid response to the Downing Street memo.

Think about it: A memo surfaces revealing that Britain's top intelligence official, after meeting with the Americans, concludes that the Bush administration has decided--eight months before the fighting began--that it's going to war in Iraq. Despite public assurances to the contrary, it was a done deal. What's more, the official reports, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Sounds like a story to me. And it did to the editors at the London Sunday Times, which published an article about the memo on May 1.

But to American news executives? Not so much. The New York Times merely mentioned the memo the following day in a piece about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's reelection. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times took more than a week before reporting on it. Many papers simply ignored it altogether. The memo was virtually invisible on TV for weeks on end. The Associated Press didn't file a story until June, more than a month after the memo was disclosed. (At least the wire service had the class to admit the obvious, that it had "dropped the ball.")

You'd think that after the media's stunningly credulous performance during the run-up to the war, when it was hopelessly taken in by all that bogus "evidence" of WMD, editors would be more careful. But you'd be wrong.

Many dismissed it as "nothing new." Now I read Woodward's book and I'm as much a Washington insider wannabe as the next guy, and I was hardly shocked by the revelation. But seems to me this was a germane new fact.

Another popular cop-out was the notion that the memo just wasn't a "smoking gun." Maybe not. But if that's our new standard for running stories, look forward to some awfully slim newspapers and brief newscasts.

Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt, whose bureau produced the first full-fledged piece on the memo in the American press, summed up best what it was . He told AJR's Kim Hart in an interview for her excellent online story about the issue ("Web Special: A Story At Last"), "We believe that it's another important piece in the mosaic of understanding the process by which we went to war in Iraq."

Another dispiriting aspect of this odd episode is the fact that news organizations began to mention the memo after President Bush and Blair were asked about it at a news conference on June 7, five weeks after it came to light. Let's see if I get this: The document isn't news in and of itself, but it becomes news when public officials say something about it? What's up with that?

Years ago the media's collective shrug would have buried the memo. That it ultimately, slowly, made its way into the spotlight is due to the power of the blogs. Much of the blogosphere's raison d'être seems to be monitoring the mainstream media and hammering away until it gets the big boys' attention. And if this is the way the MSM is going to operate, I'd say that's a good thing. (See "Journalism's Backseat Drivers." )

Many bloggers are driven by partisan impulses, and I've got enough inner Len Downie that it makes me uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean they can't play a valuable role. The bloggers, after all, can't force anyone to do anything. What they can do is give news organizations a mulligan, another opportunity to get it right.

If news outlets avoid the reflexive defensive reaction (not always easy, particularly when some of the critiques are personal and mean-spirited), if they reexamine their work to see if they missed something or got something wrong and then act on their conclusion, then they--and their audiences--will be the better for it.



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Any impeachment proceedings would have to include Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell(even though he's gone). The entire administration was complicit in presenting made up facts to ensure that the congress would support going into Iraq in the first place. Besides, can you imagine a President Cheney? Hopefully, not in my lifetime.
Yes, that does leave Hassart in charge, but what else can we do?
I'm going to the impeachment rally on September 24, in Wash. DC. I hope to see all of those who have spoken out here to be there also.
Think hard before you decide that it's too much trouble.
And, of course, if the congress is already taking up the issue of getting information from Bush and Rice the rally will have even more of an impact.
Good Government starts with good citizens. Citizens that not only expect, but demand that their rights are respected and preserved. Get on the web, email and CALL your Senators and Representatives to let them know how you feel. Telling me via a web posting doesn't do anything but momentarily relieve a personal fit of frustration.
See you all in Washington DC on September 24.

Remember Harry Truman?

as part of the PNAC cabal for Impeachment/War Tribunal process, if life is fair. W is the willing puppet , so he gets impeached plus war crimes. Bolton is part of this whole scam , plus Turd Blossom, Scooter, and so many others in the PNAC clique. Also, Wolfy has to be impeached as the architect of the "Wolfowitz Doctrine" which later became the essential program of PNAC's eery need for a "new Pearl Harbor" in their document "Rebuilding America's Defenses" in September 2000, a year before 9/11:

I wish we could impeach William Kristol, but RICO and Patriot Act are available to him for sticking our necks out on his creepy Neocon website that threatens world domination for every crackpot terrorist to see his Orwellian Pax Americana vile plots ( his weird website reminds me of Lex Luther, arch-enemy of Superman).

Personally, I would like to see Colin Powell be offered a deal to squeal... I think he resigned because they used him. That's just my personal feeling about Powell. Rice , one of the biggest kiss-ups I've ever had the displeasure of witnessing in public life, of course she knows everything and was quite willing to go along obviously. Basically if hearing their name provokes nausea, they should be impeached.

Can you impeach Jeb Bush as Governor of Florida ?, (after all he IS a card-carrying member of the PNAC and is complicit in the Iraqui war crimes).

Tom Donnelly was the PRINCIPAL author of PNAC's Rebuilding America's Defenses according to Wikipedia, and now he works for Lockheed Martin:

I do not feel comfortable that Bushco has implemented PNAC's Rebuilding America's Defenses plot from Project of a New American Century's non-profit organization, and now one of the principal plotters works for a well-known military contractor.

Colin Powell has testified before the grand jury. He may have already squealed.

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