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Downplaying the Downing Street Memo


By MediaMatters.org

Nearly six weeks after the disclosure of the Downing Street Memo -- which suggests that the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq much earlier than acknowledged, and that it manipulated pre-war intelligence to support that decision -- the memo still has not gotten much serious media coverage.

While many news organizations that ignored the story for weeks have finally touched on it, few have done more than repeating what the British Sunday Times reported on May 1, and much of the coverage has focused on the lack of coverage the memo has gotten, rather than on the content of the memo, its credibility, and what it means.

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler noted: "I don't know why, but it certainly got very little coverage, and it seemed to be an interesting document and there was no attempt to report it initially by the Post."

Post associate editor Robert Kaiser apparently doesn't share Getler's opinion that the paper has inadequately covered the matter; in a June 5 online chat, he lashed out at a reader who brought up the lack of coverage:

Bethesda, Md.: On the other hand, while you were cavorting about in Finland, your newspaper was busy ignoring further evidence (via the Downing St. memo) that our president fixed the Iraq info around his policies. What's up with that?

Robert G. Kaiser: What's up with you? Can you read? Did you read Walter Pincus's excellent journalism on that memo?

Pincus has indeed written about the memo -- though not until nearly two weeks after its existence was disclosed, in a article that appeared on page A18 of the May 13 Post. He also addressed the memo nine days later, in a May 22 article:

[I]t appears that even before the war many senior intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.

[...]

Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs.

Post editors hid that article on page A26.

Kaiser got it half right: Pincus's reporting isn't the real problem; Kasier and his fellow editors are, as Post staff writer Jefferson Morley made clear in a series of statements during an online chat this week:

I think some combination of cynicism, complacency and insulation has stifled the instincts of very good reporters.

I also think there is also a failure of leadership at the senior editorial level. The issues raised by the Downing Street minutes are very serious. To pursue them is to invite confrontation. This means that "beat" reporters cannot realistically pursue the story.

I say all this way of explanation, not rationalization. There are several natural follow up stories to the Downing Street memo that we should be pursuing right now.

[...]

I have shared my view that the story can and should be pursued.

If Post reporters don't ask Blair about the memo, they have abdicated responsibility in my view.

[...]

There is no dispute about the authenticity of the Downing Street memo.

Reporters need to assess its accuracy.

Who is Richard Dearlove? Is he a reliable reporter? Does he have an animus against Bush policy or policymakers? What was said in the meetings he attended that gave him the idea that the Americans were seeking to "fix" the policy.

[...]

Talk about it with your friends.

Write a letter to your Congressman asking for his/her explanation.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper asking them to print the Downing Street Memo and comment on its significance.

[...]

The problem here is that the normal journalist impulses seem to be checked: Any editor knowledgeable in the ways of the national security bureaucracy can come with follow up stories on the Downing Street Memo that would have nothing but readers.

It is time for us to start doing a couple of those stories and see where they lead us. If the President's partisans are correct that there is no story here, then good reporting should show that.

New York Times public editor Byron Calame has discussed his paper's lack of coverage of the memo:

The Times's coverage of the once-secret memo started alertly with a May 2 article by Alan Cowell that laid out its contents in the context of the possible impact on the May 5 British election. But the news coverage languished until this morning when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today -- and left critics of the paper's news columns to suspect the worst about its motives.

[...]

[I]t appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue -- their authenticity undisputed -- probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier than today's article.

A USA Today article this week included an overview of the scant coverage of the memo:

At a late afternoon news conference, Reuters correspondent Steve Holland asked Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about a memo that's been widely written about and discussed in Europe but less so in the USA.

It was the most attention paid by the media in the USA so far to the "Downing Street memo," first reported on May 1 by The Sunday Times of London. The memo is said by some of the president's sharpest critics, such as Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, to be strong evidence that Bush decided to go to war and then looked for evidence to support his decision.

[...]

The Sunday Times' May 1 memo story, which broke just four days before Britain's national elections, caused a sensation in Europe. American media reacted more cautiously. The New York Times wrote about the memo May 2, but didn't mention until its 15th paragraph that the memo stated U.S. officials had "fixed" intelligence and facts.

Knight Ridder Newspapers distributed a story May 6 that said the memo "claims President Bush ... was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy." The Los Angeles Times wrote about the memo May 12, The Washington Post followed on May 15 and The New York Times revisited the news on May 20.

None of the stories appeared on the newspapers' front pages. Several other major media outlets, including the evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC, had not said a word about the document before Tuesday. Today marks USA TODAY's first mention.

USA TODAY chose not to publish anything about the memo before today for several reasons, says Jim Cox, the newspaper's senior assignment editor for foreign news. "We could not obtain the memo or a copy of it from a reliable source," Cox says. "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."

Couldn't obtain a copy of it? It's been on the British Times' website for six weeks. It's also easily found at a website called -- wait for it -- DowningStreetMemo.com. Or at AfterDowningStreet.org. Surely, USA Today could have simply cited the Times in its report?

In any case, it's encouraging that ombudsmen, public editors, and reporters are finally acknowledging that they should have covered the memo better. But we're reminded of our plea from last August:

In recent months, news organizations and reporters have been tripping over themselves in a rush to critique pre-war reporting. The New York Times and The Washington Post have published extensive criticism of their own coverage, concluding they were too trusting of pro-war sources, and not skeptical enough.

[...]

Such mea culpas (as well as criticisms of rivals' coverage) are important, but they obscure something just as important: too many in the media are doing it again.

They fell for the Bush Administration's spin about the war. They didn't challenge the questionable statements about the war. Now they tell us they're sorry, but they're doing it again.

[...]

A plea to our friends in the media: please, stop writing about your past failure to challenge the Bush camp on their lies, and start challenging them on their current lies. We don't want to read another round of apologies in a year.

As Bush himself has said, "There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

And it's happening all over again ... again. News organizations downplayed the Downing Street Memo, and now some of them are apologizing for it. It's time -- long past time, actually -- to move beyond the apologies and actually cover, in a serious, sustained and substantive way, the Bush administration's use of pre-war intelligence.

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