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Downing Street Memo coverage a matter for debate
The Baltimore Sun
Public Editor: Paul Moore
June 26, 2005
On June 15, The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page published a two-part package on the Downing Street Memo, a British government document that suggests the Bush administration was not forthcoming about the timing and circumstance of its decision to invade Iraq.
Reports on the memo in the British media - including its publication in the Sunday Times of London on May 1 - cost Prime Minister Tony Blair political support in recent parliamentary elections and have fueled a journalistic debate in this country.
The first Sun op-ed piece maintained that the memo, the official minutes of a secret July 23, 2002, meeting about Iraq with Blair and his inner circle, contradicts the Bush administration claims that it invaded as a last resort and that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was honestly presented.
The second piece was the actual memo, including comments by the chief of British intelligence that read in part: "Military action was now seen as inevitable, Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The Opinion/Commentary package was The Sun's most substantial presentation on the issue since the story broke. Richard C. Gross, the page's editor, said: "I believe The Downing Street Memo needed to get out there so The Sun's readers could see it. Noise about the memo had been getting louder in cyberspace since its publication, but not all of our readers have access to the Internet."
He continued: "It was news that, in some respects, was being heard by many only as a rumor. I thought the memo - along with an accompanying explanatory piece - was necessary to help set the record straight."
Whether the memo is "news" is the crux of a growing national debate. Many newspapers, including The Sun, have received hundreds of e-mails from people challenging what they say is limited coverage of the issues raised by the memo.
Contrary arguments from serious journalists and others conclude that the memo is "old news" that simply confirms what everybody already knew.
Michael Kinsley, opinion and editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times, said in a June 12 column published in The Sun that serious interest in the memo was a merely a sign that conspiracy theories are alive and well. The Washington Post, the New York Times, The Sun and other U.S. papers have not yet produced significant reporting to advance the story.
Still, a variety of readers praised Gross' decision to run the package.
"Thank you for finally printing the Downing Street Memo," said Drake Sanders. "I have been following the story for at least a month now, and was wondering when the text of the document would be printed in a mainstream news source."
From reader Karen Schwartzman: "I commend The Sun for printing the Downing Street Memo and publishing the related article. Our democratic form of government will not survive without a free press that fulfills its obligation to inform its citizens about important issues."
But reader Eileen O'Brien was frustrated by the memo's placement in the newspaper. "I am taken aback and very confused by The Sun's placement of the Downing Street Memo in the op-ed page. It seems that The Sun is cooperating with its most knee-jerk partisan enemies by placing a clearly newsworthy item, whose authenticity is not in any doubt, on a page that belongs by tradition to partisans."
O'Brien makes a good point about partisanship. Reaction to the Downing Street memo seems to be breaking largely along partisan lines.
The Sun's Opinion/Com- mentary piece was co-written by David Swanson, who has worked for Democratic-linked groups and is co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.org. On the other side, supporters of the Bush administration's Iraq policies have dismissed the reports as partisan efforts to undermine the administration.
On the issue of coverage in the news pages, Assistant Managing Editor Kathleen Best said: "The Sun underplayed the Downing Street Memo story when it broke. We've been looking for opportunities to get a substantive story on the front page, but have failed so far."
Last Sunday, the newspaper published an Associated Press article based on material from additional Downing Street documents, which further detailed British officials' doubts about the basis for the war and noted their concerns about postwar instability in Iraq.
Best decided the AP story was solid enough for placement inside the newspaper (it ran on Page 10A), but she did not consider it for the front page because of the amount of anonymous sourcing used.
Some editors are seeking articles that can present the 2002 memos in a broader context that makes sense to readers. The memos do suggest that the United States manipulated facts to fit its policy, but that interpretation hinges on the one intelligence officer's words, the actual meaning of which is open to debate.
Additional reporting is required to provide readers with background needed to weigh questions raised by the Downing Street documents. This will not be an easy task.
"Finding the right balance of how - and how much - to cover the memos is greatly complicated by the politics surrounding it," Best said.
Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.