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Readers' Representative: Downing Street memo's route to paper
startribune.com Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Published June 12, 2005
The U.S. media, as a whole, have been in slow motion reacting to the Downing Street memo, a highly classified report the London Times published May 1.
Word of the memo did not appear in the Star Tribune until May 13 -- and that was way ahead of most American media.
Is there something wrong with the story? Is the memo fabricated? Are readers uninterested? The answers are no, no and no.
The back story reveals a lot about how news travels traditional routes and cyberspace at different velocities, about how the Internet is being used to influence media and about how those on the left and right have learned to puff up their feathers or grow small -- to foment coverage or strangle it.
First, just what is the Downing Street memo?
It's minutes from a July 23, 2002, meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his top security advisers and Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British foreign intelligence service. The war had not started. Dearlove had just returned from a meeting in Washington about Iraq.
Dearlove described "a perceptible shift in attitude" by the Bush administration. "Military action was now seen as inevitable." The memo said Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action justified by fears of terrorism and reports of weapons of mass destruction. Dearlove reported that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed" to support the administration's desire to invade Iraq.
That memo was leaked suspiciously close to a tough reelection day for Blair and published May 1 in the London Times.
Wow. That's quite a story -- fascinating if true and equally interesting if someone had fabricated it to influence the British election. The Internet made it instantly available to Web-savvy politicos everywhere via the London Times website. In this country, liberals seized on the memo as a smoking gun proving that even as the Bush administration told Americans there were no plans to attack Iraq -- and before Congress voted on the issue -- invasion planning was underway and intelligence was being manipulated to influence public opinion.
The British and U.S. governments were mum on the memo, as if hoping the story would just wither away if not fed with comment.
Curiously, that silence extended to most of the U.S. media -- including the Star Tribune. For days, it appeared the story had no legs.
Unless you went online.
Cyberspace was roiling with it. Whole websites were being set up around the memo and liberal weblogs and websites were ablaze with outrage -- some of it at the U.S. media for not reporting on the memo. Some of the sites gave instructions for pressuring local media to run a story.
So, what was going on here at the Star Tribune?
A week after the London Times printed the story, reader Jim Bootz, 48, a system administrator in Minneapolis, sent me an e-mail: "Please consider printing the story on the leaked memo. ... the memo shows clearly that the intent was there to invade Iraq all along. ... The Star Tribune's silence on this matter is deafening."
Bootz had seen the London Times story on the liberal www.buzzflash.com and thought it was important. I didn't realize then that his e-mail was the vanguard of many more that would be aimed at me and other ombudsmen around the country. I forwarded it to nation/world editor Dennis McGrath and asked if he knew anything about the topic.
McGrath knew about the memo -- but not from the traditional news wires. In this country, wire services had provided only a brief mention of it May 2 deep in a New York Times advancer on the British election. McGrath knew about it because he had started getting the e-mails, too.
He and his wire editors began watching for a wire story. A week later, they were still watching.
"We were frustrated the wires weren't providing stories on this," McGrath said. Finally, he gave up waiting for the wires and assigned reporter Sharon Schmickle to write about it -- despite the geographic disadvantage of reporting from Minneapolis on a story breaking in London.
Trying for page one
On May 11, Schmickle's story was ready to go and McGrath pitched it in the news meeting as a story for page one. But there was heavy competition that day: 69 killed by bombs in Iraq and the funeral of St. Paul Police Sgt. Gerald Vick. McGrath realized the story wouldn't make the front page and decided to hold it a day and try again.
But news was heavy the next day, too. McGrath decided it was more important to get the story in the paper than to gamble another day on a page one spot. The story ran May 13 on the top half of page A3.
"Sharon's story was a good story and got good play on A3," said Managing Editor Scott Gillespie. He said he knew it lacked the impact of page one. But it wasn't "burying" the story, as some e-mailers contended.
The Downing Street story had played out almost identically to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story last year. McGrath learned about the group and its ads from the Internet long before the wire services offered stories. He had a local reporter do that story as well, and it also ran inside the A section. He recalled a similar scenario for the story on the political effect of the movie "Fahrenheit 911."
The campaign morphs
Even after the story ran, the Downing Street memo campaign continued, morphing into demands for a page-one story. In a decision separate from the newsroom, the editorial page published an editorial referring to the memo on Memorial Day. When readers called wanting to know more about it, the editorial page staff published the whole memo on the June 3 op-ed page -- as near as I can tell for the first time in a U.S. newspaper.
The Internet campaign morphed again, with e-mailers objecting that the memo ran on the op-ed page and not page one. That continued until Wednesday, when the Downing Street memo made page one for the first time after Bush and Blair commented on it at a joint press conference. Neither questioned the memo's authenticity, but said the claim in the memo that facts were being "fixed" was not true and that a decision to go to war had not been made at the time of the meeting recounted in the memo. The e-mail campaign changed yet again, now charging that reporters didn't challenge Bush and Blair aggressively enough.
I love a good campaign in which informed, engaged citizens come together eagerly to debate issues. But there's something about these e-mail campaigns fomented by political websites (and Downing Street is just the most recent -- they erupt across the spectrum of politics and issues) that smacks more of Astroturf than grassroots. Ombudsmen around the country chat regularly about the latest campaigns; the technique isn't fooling anyone. It's also important to remember, however, that some of the Downing Street reaction, such as the e-mail from Bootz, was genuine and spontaneous -- although Bootz says he later went online to urge others to contact the media.
Retrofit the news industry
The effort it has taken locally to get a string of politically potent stories to Star Tribune readers before they're old news online reveals a rusty news industry infrastructure that still hasn't absorbed the Internet into its newsgathering habits. The wire services, and the national newspapers that feed them, need to log in and begin approaching the Internet with the passion of a foreign correspondent dispatched to his first assignment in an exotic locale.
Regional newspaper editors can have a big impact by demanding quicker response from wire services to stories erupting online and by following McGrath's lead in assigning local reporters to the story if that's what it takes to get it into the paper.
Our readers clearly will accept no less. Good for them.