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Washington Post Dot Com Seems to Have All the Talent: Does the Print Edition Need New Editors?

Why the Mainstream Media Is Catching On
Internet Bloggers Push Downing Street Memo Onto the News Agenda

By Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005; 12:20 PM

The Downing Street Memo continues to spread in American political discussion despite efforts to dismiss its significance.

The DSM story, as the top-secret British document it is known on the Internet, has legs because it really represents two stories: an emerging alternative history of how the United States came to attack Iraq and a story of how the New Media has usurped some of the Old Media's power to set the agenda.

Michael Smith, ace reporter for the Sunday Times, continues to lead the journalistic pack on the story, again demonstrating that there is more news in the British official record of war preparations. Smith reported last weekend that the British Foreign Office had concluded in early 2002 that stepped-up U.S. and British attacks on Iraq in the so-called no-fly zone violated international law. Smith's story was based on a "confidential" document entitled "Iraq: Legal Background" that was attached to the original DSM which was presented to senior British officials in July 2002.

The original memo reported that British defence secretary Geoff Hoon said that "the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime" by attacking Iraqi installations starting in May 2002.

The "Legal Background" document shows that the British Foreign Office concluded in March 2002 such attacks could only be legally justified by self-defense, imminent threat or humanitarian crisis as defined by a United Nations resolution.

"The increased attacks on Iraqi installations, which senior US officers admitted were designed to 'degrade' Iraqi air defences, began six months before the UN passed resolution 1441, which the allies claim authorised military action," Smith wrote.

Thomas Wagner, an Associated Press reporter in London, advanced the DSM story when he reported that there was not one but a series of eight British memos "that have renewed questions and debate about Washington's motives for ousting Saddam Hussein."

"In one of the memos, British Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts asks whether Bush administration had a clear and compelling military reason for war," Wagner wrote in a story picked up by the Times of India, the Winnepeg Sun and Xinhua, the Chinese news service.

"US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing," Ricketts said in the memo. "For Iraq, 'regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.", Web site of the international Spanish-language TV network with a big U.S. audience, also picked up the story.

"What is surprising," said Washington correspondent Jorge Ramos Avalos, is "how little attention [the memo] has received in some of the most important news media in the United States despite its being an official document that contradicts the North American version of the beginning of the war."

"Taken together, these papers amount to an indictment of the way the British and American peoples were led to war," says columnist Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian.

Some in the American mainstream media, or MSM as bloggers call it, dispute the Downing Street memo offers anything new that would change public understanding of the decision to go to war in Iraq.

"The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations," declared the editorial page of The Washington Post last week. " Hearsay ," said the Rocky Mountain News. And radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has suggested, without evidence, the documents may be forged. (In fact, The British government has not challenged the authenticity of any of the documents cited in recent news reports.)

But an increasing number of news editors are recognizing the newsworthiness of the DSM story. Newsday , the New York tabloid, picked up the AP story. The Houston Chronicle published DSM excerpts this week. So did the San Francisco Chronicle. The editors of the Detroit Free Press say the DSM story is "too significant to be dismissed as simply old news -- as the White House would like -- or left to historians."

These aren't the big-name national news organizations that bloggers call the MSM. But nor are they partisan liberal organs inclined to buy into fact-free theories. The interest of such regional media mainstays demonstrates how the Internet has transformed the news business.

Thousands of bloggers now do the sort of sifting and weighing and disseminating of information that was formerly the exclusive province of a relatively small group of media professionals concentrated in the East Coast. The growing DSM coverage, said the BBC this week, is a "bloggers' victory."

News editors can read the DSM documents and the original Times of London stories themselves. They might be persuaded by the reporting of The Post's Dana Milbank who portrayed Rep. John Conyers's DSM hearings on Capitol Hill last week as an excursion into the "land of make-believe". But with a click of the mouse they can go to the coverage of the same event in the Guardian of London and see the DSM story described as "tantamount to the first word of tapes in the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal."

The point is not that either account has a monopoly on truth, but now there is another force that can help put a story on the news agenda.

Thanks to the global reach of the Internet, the two-month-old scoop of a London daily continues to live in the American political debate and diverse areas of the media landscape.

Mary Specht provided research for this column.


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To all who think the Downing Street Memo is not news - it was news to me and hundreds of thousands of others. All we had until these eight Downing St. Memos were disclosed was speculation, not a single written document, never mind actual Top Secret minutes of a meeting between the British and American intelligence agencies. Some US reporters tried to make a case since 2002, but lack of documentation made it nothing but "confidential sources reported". In Time Magazine in '02 Daniel Ellsberg (remember the Pentagon Papers?) made it clear these discussions were taking place, but he had no documentation from the highest levels of national intelligence – as when Ellsberg critiqued the Viet Nam War, but had no documents until he got access to the Pentagon Papers. Now we do.

It's a story. It's a story that something so critical to US security, our budget and a war that is impacting the entire world (with the drop in Iraqi oil production and newly-motivated terrorists and demolition of the US economy), was buried in the US mainstream media. It's a story that a Congress controlled by the Executive branch's own party refuses to call a Resolution of Inquiry, and even tried everything it could to derail the meeting called by a US Representative and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. It's a story that there is currently no system of checks and balances functioning in the US political arena to protect "the minority", because the Executive and Legislature are one party, the Judiciary is predominantly appointed by one party, and the news media, meant to be the Fourth Estate, is simply a part of a multinational entertainment corporation.

It's a story that we can impeach presidents, for lying about sperm on a dress and for covering up a robbery to gain political traction, but we can't get hearings or actions from hearings that prove domestic and international crimes are being committed by our administrations. Recall the Iraq/Contra crimes - hearings, convictions, finally, but long after the reporter Gary Webb, who revealed it in the mainstream media, was discredited and lost his career. After the pardons of the perpetrators, Webb, the ruined journalist who did such a great job for major media, committed suicide in '04, because the convictions were followed by pardons so quickly that the perpetrators suffered not one whit. Ollie North got air-time as an official "commentator/expert" on FOX, just as Gordon Liddy got acting/commentator jobs, but Webb lost everything, even hope and ultimately his life.

It's a story when a democracy's limited but cherished tools to protect minorities are lost or stolen. It's a story when a democracy becomes a fascist nation, as Germany did with no conscious effort by its oblivious citizens. That's what we're trying to protect our faulty but democratic nation from, so please, keep them honest, or we'll all be in for a very nasty fascist surprise, sooner than later. Do we want to preserve our democracy peacefully, or be forced to fight back from underground to recapture it?

By any chance--does Jefferson Morley know Dana Milbank, his colleague at the Washington Post? If so, he needs to share this article with Milbank who seems to have not a clue about the importance of the Downing Street Memos. One week after Milbank's horrendous article about Rep. Conyers' hearing--we still haven't seen an apology to Conyers or the brave witnesses who testified last week. Please, Mr. Morley--help us get to Milbank. Thanks.

Excellent audio of an interview with Jeff Morley of the on the Downing Street memos.

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