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But Is It Playing in Peoria? The Downing Street Memo and Our Hometown Papers
Published on Wednesday, June 29, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
By Cynthia Bogard
Jefferson Morley, a staff writer at washingtonpost.com, suggested recently that the Downing Street Memo (DSM) story continues to spread because it 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."
The "New Media" --the blogosphere and alternative news and views websites such as rawstory.com, buzzflash.com, commondreams.org and, especially pertinent to this story, afterdowningstreet.org--certainly deserve a lot of credit. On-line complaints about Old Media's neglect of the story have had a major impact. So has the "letters to the editors" campaign started by the original downingstreetmemo.com site that has deluged newspapers around the nation with reader demands for DSM coverage. Old Media--television and the major daily newspapers, The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and perhaps the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune--finally have begun to get the message that the DSM story is not going to go away because New Media is not going to let it.
But even if the DSM story helps to reshape the fourth estate as seems increasingly likely, it's the "alternative history" the DSM represents and its potential to end a needless war and rein in a rogue administration that must be focused on right now. If the DSM story is to be effective as a political story, the citizenry needs to be informed. And while New Media and Old Media fight their battle, it just might be our nation's first media--the hometown paper--that ensures that the DSM as a story about the world being misled into a illegal war continues to make its way into the nation's consciousness.
Is the DSM story playing in Peoria, that classic mid-country metaphor for small-town America?
You betcha it is.
Under the headline "House Forum Focuses on Downing Street," The Peoria Journal Star ran a substantial story on the Conyers hearing on June 17. It printed the memos. On June 19 it ran in full AP correspondent Thomas Wagner's detailed and lengthy story about the memos, their release and what new information about the run-up to the war they contained. On June 21, in an editorial about the war, the paper stated, "Americans need to hear a forthright and thoughtful response to the Downing Street Memo." On the web version of the paper, links to the memo story and the texts of the memos appeared on page one, adjacent to coverage of the June 28 Bush speech on the war.
And the folks in Peoria are far from alone in being informed by their hometown papers about the Downing Street Memo. It's clear from the dramatic increase recently in DSM mentions in articles, letters and editorials that the June 16 Conyers hearing marked a tipping point for the DSM story in hometown papers around the nation.
Smaller city papers do look to their wire services for what stories to emphasize. As Tom O'Hara, the managing editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer said, "On international stories like this, we usually take our cue from the Associated Press and the New York Times wire service. The Downing Street Memo story was barely on their radar screen. We followed suit." That's why Knight Ridder's early and consistent coverage of the issue mattered and that's why AP obtaining copies of the last six of the documents (thus legitimating their interest through use of the "scoop") mattered. There's been a flurry of coverage from both these sources in the wake of the Conyers hearing. But newswire dependence, especially if that wire happened to be the MIA New York Times, also curtailed coverage in some papers, at least at first.
That's where citizens stepped in. While Plain Dealer editor O'Hara criticized the letters he'd received from "our loyal readers in California, New York, Wisconsin and other places," most other papers not only received many letters from local readers but printed them, sometimes in bulk. On June 19, for example, the St. Petersburg Times ran eight letters from readers responding to the previous week's editorial on the DSM. Two were supportive of the president, the rest criticized the media or the Bush Administration or called for further investigation. On June 21 the Sacramento Bee ran ten letters, nine of them critical of the media's job in covering the issue or the Bush Administration's actions as revealed by the memos. Eugene Kane of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the letter writing campaigns "a form of electronic chain-letter designed to tweak the consciences of journalists such as me."
Other papers have forums for reader views. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, under the banner "The Vent," publishes one-line complaints, which on June 20 included a call for more DSM story coverage. The Seattle Times publishes Northeast Voices, which features multiple letters from readers on whatever subjects they'd like to discuss. A reader of that paper also wrote in to complain about lack of DSM coverage by the media in general.
Unlike the New York Times, which only prints letters related directly to one of its stories (so if they aren't covering the issue, a letter about that fact will at best appear in the ombudsman column, not the letters column), many hometown papers print letters from their readers that directly contain their views, independent of the paper's articles. In paper after paper, letter writers wrote in to complain about lack of DSM coverage, to demand more coverage or to thank their paper for its coverage. In the week following the Conyers hearing there were letters about the DSM in at least 22 of the country's second-tier papers from the Hartford Courant to the San Antonio Express News, the Akron Beacon Journal to the Rocky Mountain News.
Wire services and citizens' demands helped to drive DSM on to the pages of hometown papers. But their editors also oftentimes took the initiative. Not many papers assigned a reporter to the story like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis did. But in small papers as diverse as The Billings Outpost (Montana), the Bangor Daily News (Maine), and The Free Lance Star (Fredricksburg, Virginia), editors have begun to weigh in on the DSM in corporate and signed editorials. Cathy Siegner of the Billings Outpost for example notes, "Deliberately misleading Congress is an impeachable offense. Two recent presidents were impeached for far less." The Bangor Daily News calls for a nonpartisan 9/11-like commission to investigate the memos. And Rick Mercier, writing for the Free Lance Star, sarcastically notes that "those waving the memos around and yelling for impeachment proceedings to begin say it is, too, news that the United States' closest ally thought the case for war was 'thin'."
The Minneapolis Star Tribune flatly states that "both British and American citizens were duped" into hoping the U.N. process could prevent the war. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Morford calls the lies that led us into this war "staggering, appalling" and concludes, "Of course Bush deserves to be impeached." Even the conservative Tampa Tribune, which, in its editorial doubted the authenticity of the memos and called the DSM "a small piece of inconclusive evidence," did call for Bush to respond and "talk frankly" with his doubters.
Syndicated columnists have also played a strategic and significant role. Though his paper all but refuses to cover the story, the New York Times' Paul Krugman has written editorials on the Downing Street Memo on May 16 and June 24 that were reprinted in many smaller city papers. Molly Ivins' columns likewise appear in small papers as disparate as Boulder, Colorado's Daily Camera and Fort Worth, Texas' Star Telegram. Both these columnists are taking the story seriously and calling for more reporting and a public airing of what happened. Though LA Times editor Michael Kinsley and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank have written dismissively and mockingly of the story, their widely reprinted columns also have created a momentum of reader reaction.
So how is the story cutting? Unsurprisingly, papers in towns with large middle class Black populations and papers hailing from well-known liberal bastions are leading the way in coverage of the issue and in calls for further investigation. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Detroit Free Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Seattle Times and Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times have all given substantial coverage and editorial space to the DSM story.
There is a definite Red State/Blue State difference in coverage, with some dailies in Red States either all but ignoring the story, covering it dismissively or echoing the Bush Administration take on it. The Dallas Morning News unsurprisingly quoted White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's view that "this is simply rehashing old debates that have already been discussed" and ended with Bush's assertion that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein but did include information from the memo itself. A letter writer to Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal was scolded for complaining about the lack of DSM coverage in the paper because, as public editor Mike Needs said, "On May 6 this newspaper carried a prominent front-page article about the DSM."
But the story is being covered in unexpected ways in unexpected places too such as in the hometown paper of the U.S. military, Stars and Stripes, which quoted Celeste Zappala, a gold star mother from the anti-Iraq war group Military Families Speak Out. Likewise, the Lexington Kentucky Herald carried a story about Cindy Sheehan, also a gold star mother and one of the citizens who testified at the Conyers hearing. The Houston Chronicle, like Peoria's paper, printed the entire June 20 AP story.
The Downing Street memo story definitely has legs. It has survived the "court of appeals" as Jay Rosen has termed the process by which a story ignored by the mainstream media can be given new life via the Internet and rebound from the blogosphere back on to the radar of the mainstream media. When it comes time to look back on what might prove to be a critical incident in American history, we'll be lauding the independence of America's hometown dailies for helping to raise the consciousness of the nation. You betcha we will.
Cynthia Bogard (Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edu) is a sociology professor at Hofstra University in New York. She was born and raised in small-town Wisconsin.