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Downing Street Redux


by Billmon

Eric Boehlert at Salon did a more thorough and concise job than I did of flaying the corporate media over its mishandling of the Downing Street Memo story -- although personally I think the piece would have benefited from a few scatalogical insults hurled at melon heads like Tim Russert. Truth is a defense, after all.

In my own screed on the subject yesterday, I should have included links to two other organizations that are working to keep the story alive -- afterdowningstreet.com and the Big Brass Alliance, a coalition of lefty bloggers who are also pushing the issue with admirable intensity.

Some folks have told me they think I'm being too pessimistic about the odds of actually persuading/pressuring the corporate media drones into doing their jobs. Pessimism is definitely my natural state, but in this case I'm speaking from a certain amount of personal experience (about 14 years) with how the news business works.

Prodding the media into revisiting a story it has collectively decided to ignore isn't impossible, but it's extremely hard. Once the journalistic herd has made up its collective mind (think of a pile of slime mold growing in your refrigerator) the overwhelming tendency is to move on to the next story. Even more than most people, reporters and editors live in a fog of sensory overload. New stories break every day, every hour, and decisions about whether to cover them are made on the fly, usually by people (i.e. editors) who are barely intellectually competent to unroll their socks in the morning.

Even if there was an inclination on their part to revisit previous news "judgments," there's rarely enough time or space in the paper (or in the broadcast feed) to do more than what most news organizations did after the Bush/Blair press conference yesterday, which is to shoehorn a couple of paragraphs into an unrelated story.

Those are just the facts of life. Competition for news "hole" (a uniquely appropriate bit of journalistic slang) is ferocious -- especially today, in an era of declining resources, shrinking page counts and constant pressure to fluff it up and dumb it down from publishers who think the runaway bride story was too complicated for the average reader to follow.

So if the idea is to get the media to run big front-page, top-of-the-hour stories about what's in the Downing Street Memo and what that implies about Bush's rush to war -- in other words, the stories they should have done when the memo first leaked -- then, yeah, I think it's probably hopeless. The corporate media is already predisposed against this story and will respond to public pressure the way it usually does -- by letting the flackcatchers (the omsbudsman or public editor, or whatever the hell he/she is called) catch it for them.

Unless (and this is a big unless) there are fresh developments in the story, or the editorial herd can be persuaded there are unexplored angles that can be developed into fresh stories. Big stories. The only reason the Nixon-era press eventually decided it had gotten Watergate wrong was because Woodstein kept pumping out the exclusives -- each one potentially more explosive than the last.

Whether that same potential exists with the Downing Street memo story isn't clear. Actually, strike that -- it's perfectly clear, but only if the focus is widened to include the entire policymaking process that led up to the invasion. The memo itself may be the smoking gun, but the story is the crime, or crimes rather -- the manipulation of the intelligence, the deliberate efforts to sabotage a diplomatic solution, the use of strategic disinformation (i.e. lies) against a domestic audience, the possible forging of evidence, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the cover up afterwards, which is still in progress.

Where the reporting trail might lead has been suggested by Josh Marshall, who claims the report the Senate Intelligence Committee put out on the WMD fiasco last summer wasn't just a whitewash, but part of the cover up itself:

From my own reporting on the issue, I know that whole sections of last year's Senate Intel report contained knowingly-deceptive, up is down, portrayals of key events -- something that was impossible to see unless you knew what was under key redactions and important details that went unmentioned entirely.

"Knowingly deceptive." Sure sounds like obstruction of justice to me.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that a single-minded focus on the Downing Street Memo might not be the most promising strategy for getting the corporate media -- and American public opinion, such as it is -- to take the Iraq War conspiracy seriously. The story needs to go somewhere, and the failure of the relevant oversight bodies in the GOP-controlled Congress to investigate the issue fully, despite explicit public promises to do so, might be a good direction to take it.

So in addition to flooding the corporate media with calls and letters demanding that they get on the ball, complaints also should be directed to the offices of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KA, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- (202) 224-4774; 109 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC 20510 -- and Vice Chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D(alleged)-WV -- (202) 224-6472; 531 Hart Senate Office Building.

Or how about the chair of the House Intelligence Committee: Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-MI: (202) 225-4401; 2234 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington DC 20515. Or ranking member Rep. Jane Harmon, D(alleged)-CA: (202) 225 8220; 2400 Rayburn House Office Building.

The intelligence committees -- especially the Senate committee, which isn't quite so far in the tank as its counterpart in the Chamber of People's Deputies -- ultimately may be the only ones capable of breaking the story open in a major way. The media can only go so far, given how deeply embedded the scandal is in the classified core of the national security state. (Although if there are any current or former intelligence officials out there who have been weighing whether to put their careers and/or freedom on the line by blowing the whistle, now would be a good time.)

Of course, if the intelligence panels are actually part of the cover up, then asking them to investigate further is pretty pointless. But a closer look at their role in the scandal might at least give the story a fresh news hook, and some possible strings for reporters to follow.

Of course it may be that nothing will work -- that the story will die through lack of public interest, much less outrage. The heart of the administration's stonewall strategy, at least from a PR perspective, is Bush's standard line about how "the world is better off with Saddam out of power." That may be a false statement -- and getting falser by the day, even for the Iraqis -- but it's almost impossible to answer it in a way that can't be smeared as "objectively pro-Saddam."

More to the point, even though a growing majority of the American people finally appear to have soured on Shrub's war, it's almost certainly not because of the way he got us into it, but because we're losing it -- or at least, not winning it.

The truth (which the political establishment and corporate media understand but can't admit, at least not in so many words) is that the overwhelming majority of the American people probably don't give a flying fuck whether the war was started under false pretenses, or in violation of international law -- or even that impeachable offenses may have been committed under U.S. law. All they know is that Saddam was a bad guy (right out of central casting, in fact) and that we're always the good guys, which means the United States had every right to invade Iraq and overthrow its government. It's strictly movie logic, and movie morality, but for most Americans that may be enough -- at least as long as the movie ends the way such movies are supposed to end, with the triumph of the "good guys."

I know this is going to sound harsh, but my sense is that American popular opinion about the invasion of Iraq is roughly the same as German popular opinion about the invasion of Russia (which was also sold as a cakewalk, all the way up to the battle of Stalingrad) -- most people are just sorry it didn't work out.

But, hey, that's the grim pessimist in me talking. Somebody out there must care, or the corporate media wouldn't even be bothering to debate its coverage of the Downing Street Memo. People may not mind that invasion was unnecessary and illegal, but they do mind the mess it has turned into. And that's a start.

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