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Web Special: A Story At Last
How public pressure helped propel the long-ignored Downing Street memo into the news
American Journalism Review
By Kim Hart
Hart is an AJR editorial assistant.
Foreign news outlets jumped on it, bloggers ate it up and half a dozen liberal Web sites campaigned to get it prominent coverage. But until the past few weeks, the Downing Street memo managed to keep a low profile in the media, getting more attention for being ignored by American journalists than for existing in the first place.
Editors, reporters and producers have been deluged with hundreds--even thousands--of e-mails and phone calls from readers and partisan activists demanding more exposure for the secret memo, which recounts a July 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top aides. The memo, first reported by the London Sunday Times on May 1, reflects the view of Britain's top intelligence official that the Bush administration was intent on going to war in Iraq nearly eight months before doing so, and that the administration was manipulating intelligence information to support that decision.
By now, it is no secret that coverage of the memo was scarce until nearly five weeks after its debut. But the belated media interest raises a larger question about what makes news: Should editors decide what to cover based on their own news judgments, or do they have a responsibility to give their audiences the stories they demand? Even if editors originally choose not to pursue a story, is intense public pressure itself enough to warrant coverage? Or does that come dangerously close to allowing organized pressure to set the news agenda?
On the other hand, does public clamor sometimes force the media to pay attention to legitimate stories it originally underplayed or ignored? In the case of the Downing Street memo, the answer to that question appears to be yes.
Only a few media outlets took notice of the memo immediately after the Times story ran. On May 2, the New York Times mentioned it briefly in the context of Blair's reelection. Knight Ridder's Washington bureau wrote the first story that took a serious look at the memo on May 6, although some of the chain's papers chose not to print it. Almost a week later, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune weighed in.
Television was very late on the story. On CNN, the memo was mentioned once on May 2 in the context of Blair's reelection. Bloggers' outrage over lack of coverage was touched on by "Inside Politics" on May 6, and a more detailed story ran on the network five days later. May 16 marked the memo's unveiling on MSNBC's "Countdown," and it wasn't mentioned again until May 25 when actor and activist Tim Robbins brought it up on Chris Matthews' show, "Hardball." According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network television news, CBS and NBC aired segments June 7, the day of the press conference at which Bush and Blair were questioned about the memo's accuracy. NBC ran a package about a subsequently leaked memo a week later. ABC steered clear of the story altogether.
So how big a deal is the memo? "We believe that it's another important piece in the mosaic of understanding the process by which we went to war in Iraq," says Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder's Washington editor. Even though the news service was ahead of the pack in supplying newspapers with stories on the subject--as it had been with skeptical coverage of the Bush administration's assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction--the bureau received more than 400 e-mails in a single day demanding more coverage. "This is an area we've been writing about continuously," Hoyt says.
Web sites like www.afterdowningstreet.org cropped up on the Internet criticizing the media for ignoring the story. Numerous blogs urged readers to demand coverage from their local papers, and incensed letters to the editor poured into newsrooms.
Why the lackadaisical response? Some editors felt the memo didn't contain anything new, and others, who rely on the wires for such foreign stories, say they simply didn't have anything to publish. A few editors were wary about the story because they couldn't obtain a copy of the memo and weren't certain of its authenticity. Nonetheless, news executives and Washington reporters felt the mounting public pressure to get the document into the news.
A few editors took the matter into their own hands when wire stories were nowhere to be found. Readers' responses prompted Dennis McGrath, nation/world editor at Minneapolis' Star Tribune, to take a look at the story, and he immediately assigned a reporter to investigate. "The e-mails and phone calls kept coming," he says. "It was clear to me that this is something readers were interested in seeing..and it seemed like a very intriguing memo that was worth exploring." The paper published its story on May 13.
While a number of journalists still say the memo doesn't deserve widespread coverage, others criticize the media for falling short of their obligation to the public.
Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler clearly disapproved of his paper's failure to follow up on the story until almost two weeks after the memo appeared in the Times. "The Post had reported essentially nothing," Getler wrote in his May 15 column, adding that the memo received very little attention from the U.S. press in general. "Even though it was late, The Post should have broken that pattern." (The Post ran an A1 story on June 28 about several secret documents unearthed by the London paper.)
The Chicago Tribune eventually ran a front-page story May 17 recounting the White House's response to the memo. Says Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Naftali Bendavid: "This was going into the heart of why we went to war... It just seemed like something we needed to address, even if we weren't the first to do so."
Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio's ombudsman, says he's disappointed that his news organization paid such scant attention to the story at first. "I definitely think NPR was slow to jump on it," he says. The memo has occupied NPR's airwaves 18 times--including a live broadcast from a June 16 discussion of the subject on Capitol Hill organized by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.)--since its first mention May 22.
The Associated Press concedes that it was far too slow to react. Shortly after the wire service at last reported on the memo during the first week of June, International Editor Deborah Seward told Salon there was "no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner." Once stories were available, many newspapers gave the memo front-page play.
But if readers hadn't engaged in such spirited protests of the virtual blackout, would media news organizations have paid attention to the document?
Many editors, like Minneapolis' McGrath, were compelled by the public's demands to give the memo a second look. For Ann McFeatters, Washington bureau chief for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, it wasn't a question of importance as much as it was one of resources. Although she wrote a few front-page stories about the memo--the first one appeared June 8--working in a four-person bureau means having to be selective in what she covers, McFeatters says.
By the first week of June, she had received more than 2,000 e-mails plus quite a few phone calls urging her to write about the memo. "The response has never been this intense before... It's obviously very orchestrated," says McFeatters, who has been a reporter in Washington for 36 years. She says she can only write more on the issue if there is "some real news attached to it."
So what constitutes "real news"? A number of editors waited for officialdom--the president, members of Congress--to broach the memo issue before giving it any play.
Although it had been mentioned briefly during prior broadcasts, PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" waited to air a segment about the Downing Street document until Bush and Blair were questioned about it at a June 7 press conference. The program then followed up twice more surrounding the Democrat-led hearing on June 16. Lester Crystal, "NewsHour" executive producer, says the program held off on airing an in-depth discussion "because it just didn't rise to that level in our minds" until it was formally addressed during the press conference.
"There wasn't the sense then, and it's disputed now, that this was a smoking gun," he says. "It was an issue that we had discussed a lot..but [the public outcry] bubbled up again when Bush was asked about it." After seeing stories in the press about the lack of coverage, Crystal says, the show's producers felt it was "a good time" to address it once it was firmly "in the news again."
He adds: "Of course, you have to take the public interest into account, but it isn't the arbiter of what you do... It still has to warrant coverage in its own right."
Like "NewsHour," many news organizations held off on the story until over a month after the memo surfaced. A Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspaper and wire stories mentioning the memo showed that, of 941 articles, more than 800 of them appeared after the June 7 press conference. Before that, with a few exceptions, most mentions were confined to the editorial pages and stuffed somewhere in letters to the editor.
When the public speaks out about its interest in a particular issue, reporters should listen, says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. But it is up to the journalists to determine newsworthiness without waiting for politicians to weigh in. "Covering a story in the absence of newsmakers is the proper sphere of news judgment," he says. "That's what journalists go to school for--to make those kinds of decisions."
Some editors cited concerns about the document's authenticity. The Miami Herald, for instance, took a cautious approach. Tom Fiedler, the paper's executive editor, chose not to spend an excessive amount of time on the story in the beginning because he felt the document wasn't a reliable source for the type of allegations it suggested. The paper ran parent Knight Ridders's earliest story on May 6, and the memo has appeared five times since then, although never on page one. It is dangerous, he says, to report on what appeared to be nothing more than a "he-said-he-said" scenario that could not be independently confirmed.
"To continue to report something you can't verify is to spin innuendo," Fiedler says. Public pressure doesn't change that. "I don't think you can make your news judgments based on whether people will be entirely happy with them or not. It's not that we are callous toward people who write and express an interest in it, but we didn't feel that we had sufficient clarity beyond that initial report."
Jamie Gold, the Los Angeles Times' readers' representative, received hundreds of e-mails about the memo, but that's not why the paper reported on it, she says. "The issue itself is worth covering, and I'm glad the Times looked into it," she adds. "But I don't think the response translated into pressure... Editors still bounced it off their internal compasses before running it."
But intense public interest warrants taking a closer look, some journalists argue, even if it means tapping into the growing number of alternative news sources, especially blogs. Acknowledging readers' concerns can often help news organizations take note of stories they may otherwise overlook, and those concerns may also be worthy of a story in their own right.
"Sometimes news is what the whole town's talking about," says NPR's Dvorkin. The media have been "pretty defensive and resistant to suggestions" after the embarrassment of missing the story, he says, and a lot of journalists tried to ignore the issue when they were scooped by bloggers and the foreign press. "I think the mainstream media has to figure out a way to get past its own defensiveness and say, 'This is out there, so let's have a look at it. Maybe it has value and maybe it doesn't, but we should apply our journalistic standards to it.'"
Ann Hellmuth, the Orlando Sentinel's deputy managing editor for national/foreign news, agrees that ignoring the public's interest is the epitome of "arrogance." After receiving dozens of e-mails from readers wanting more coverage, she scoured the wires for stories. When they were finally available, she made sure they ran in the paper's A section.
"We aren't God, and we're not always right," she says. "In this day and age, you really have to take the pulse of your readers. They say readership is going down because people don't trust us and think we're biased, so this is even more important to make sure that you're giving everything due consideration."
In an era of instant communication through the Internet, editors are no longer the gatekeepers, Lichter points out. Journalists must take their cues from readers, or they will cease to have readers at all. And blogs, he says, have become entities that reporters should take seriously. "If we stand for the public, but the public rejects us, who are we representing?"
McGrath of the Star Tribune adds: "This is a new era we're in, where we are getting more questions as to why we haven't published something, much more so than even a year ago. People are plugging into news sources overseas and online, and we need to keep up with that."
But just because a story suddenly pops up online and sparks the public's curiosity doesn't mean it should escape an editor's scrutiny, says Gary Hill, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee and the director of investigations at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. Being responsive to the interests of readers and viewers is the only way to serve them well, he says, but editors should never feel obligated to pursue a story that is not worthy of attention.
"You should never suspend your editorial judgment" because the public wants a particular story, he says. "Stick to your guns. Don't capitulate under pressure."
Gauging public opinion, though, is often tricky for editors and producers. Like McFeatters of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade, editors struggle to distinguish between feedback from a politically motivated campaign and the public at large. But Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, advises journalists not to dismiss any of the responses they receive, even if they suspect an ulterior motive behind the message.
"I'd try to learn as much as possible about the new energy and the new voices that are being created by new technology and try to transplant them back into the newspaper or broadcast," he says.
Interacting with readers is a tool editors need to harness, Clark says. "The news editor no longer has a priestly power over news judgment. It's a much more collaborative effort between editors and journalists, reporters and civic leaders and the public they serve."
Is the media obligated to write about an issue the public thinks is important? Editors "should be reading these blogs, looking at the arguments and then making their own decisions about what news is," Lichter says. "If you don't do that, then what are you there for?"