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Downing Street: A Dead-End In American Media

By David Michael Green
July 13, 2005
In These Times

"What is surprising, 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." --Jorge Ramos Avalos, Washington correspondent for Univision.

The Downing Street Memos have provided an unexpected fright for the minority of Americans who are aware of them.

It's not that presidents lie about the wars they send other people's kids off to fight. And it's not even that the media in this country has grown lazy, intimidated and sycophantic. It's the degree to which this is true, and the deterioration of American democracy to which it testifies. At the same moment we were revisiting the Watergate story and celebrating the dogged persistence that unmasked the crimes of Richard Nixon, the media largely ignored what is one of the biggest stories since the end of the Cold War.

Five main indictments emanate from this growing series of leaked documents. First, that the Bush administration decided to go to war earlier than was publicly stated. Second, that the reasons he gave for the war were bogus. Third, that Bush lied in saying that the war could have been avoided. Fourth, that the war actually began almost a year earlier than is assumed. And fifth, that the administration did almost no planning for the aftermath of the invasion.

The media's response to these allegations has been to ignore, distort, deny and denigrate them.

Why blow off such a huge story? Cindy Sheehan says, "The press and the public are afraid to admit they were duped, because that would mean they have to take partial responsibility for the mess in Iraq. It would take a great deal of personal integrity and honesty to admit that." Sheehan is the mother of Casey Sheehan, who was killed in action on April 4, 2004 in Sadr City. She has since co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace and is a highly visible activist in the anti-war movement.

The story was almost completely absent from the mainstream media, especially in the weeks following May 1 when the story broke in the Sunday Times of London. A classic example was offered by the New York Times, which reported this bombshell in its coverage of the British elections, but somehow never thought to raise it as an issue of American politics. Even Times Public Editor Byron Calame found this inexcusable. "It appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue--their authenticity undisputed--probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers," he wrote.

But Calame was only addressing this at all because the Times was being bombarded by angry reader correspondence. Since this was happening all over, the media had to change tack. When ignoring the memos no longer proved viable, they began to substitute very limited reporting coupled with distortion and denial. The mainstream media approach has been to ignore most of the Downing Street memo implications, dismiss others by arguing that everyone in Washington knew the president was going to war back in late 2002, and grudgingly admit that there could have been better "post-war'" planning.

The public, of course, had a very different understanding--an understanding based on what the president had said. Even if Washington insiders were discussing the pending invasion over dinner, the president was telling Americans that he was seeking to avoid war at all costs, and very many of them believed him.

Bush said that war was to be his last resort, that Saddam could avoid it by telling the truth about WMDs, that he went to the U.N. to try to solve the problem peacefully, that Iraq represented such an urgent threat to U.S. security he could no longer wait for the inspectors to finish their work, that he therefore gave the order to attack in March 2003, and that U.N. resolutions gave him the authority to do so.

Not a single one of those assertions was truthful, as the Downing Street Memos prove. Bush actually began attacking Iraq in July 2002. The purpose was to provoke a response that could become a casus belli for invasion. Ditto the entire U.N. inspections, which were done only in the hopes that Saddam would refuse inspections and thus provide a pretext for war. And we all know now about the distortion of intelligence concerning WMDs and al Qaeda links.

Or do we? The media has rightly focused on the smoking gun in these memos, which states that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." But focusing exclusively on this line allows another popular dodge, the claim that "fixed" has another meaning in Britspeak, to be "bolted on." Apart from the fact that the Brits themselves find this a laughable bit of news about their dialect, making this argument requires ignoring the rest of the document's content, not least the line stating that the case for attacking Iraq was "thin," as well as the rest of the context (like the fact the Bush people actually were, in fact, wildly distorting intelligence at this time, as the memo explains).
Hitting Rock Bottom

The nadir prize within mainstream American journalism probably goes to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post for his curled-lip rendering of Rep. John Conyers' (D-Mich.) ad hoc hearing on the memos. It was ad hoc because the House Republican majority has every interest in burying this scandal, so much so that they wouldn't even give Conyers a conference room in the Capitol to use, despite the fact that several were available. (Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ultimately found him a stuffy basement room of about 20' by 30'.) To further stymie Conyers, the Republicans simultaneously scheduled important committee meetings and an astounding 11 floor votes--a House record.

Milbank had a slightly different perspective on the event in a story labeled "Washington Sketch." Titled "Democrats Play House To Rally Against the War," Milbank began with this lead-in: "In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe." Milbank went well out of his way to mock Conyers, omit salient facts, erroneously report others, and even somehow manage to play the anti-Semitism card.

Fortunately, it produced what Post Ombudsman Michael Getler described as "a torrent of critical e-mails," which in turn led to him calling the paper's sole coverage of the news event by a columnist "a serious mistake." (In his column a week earlier, Getler had also written "The bulk of the mail last week, by far, was focused once again on the 'Downing Street Memo.'") Without the leadership of Conyers and the electronic foments of an angry blogopublic, Downing Street would have been DOA in the USA.

It is the efforts of these folks, in particular, that have produced the most bizarre, yet hopeful, aspect of this sad display of journalism. A huge proportion of media articles and talk-show blatherings on the Downing Street Memo scandal has been devoted to discussing why the media is not covering the story, even while they continue to do just that. Rather than decide to actually cover this story of monstrous proportions, they resorted instead to bogus and pathetic bouts of existential soul-searching.

What is especially disconcerting about this noncoverage is what it says about the state of American media, and to a lesser extent, its junk-news consumers. According to one count of TV segments covering this story versus those concerning Natalee Holloway (the Alabama teenager who went missing in Aruba) and Michael Jackson, from May 1 through June 20 on network news there were only 6 mentions of the Downing Street Memo (all on NBC), but 174 for Holloway and 465 for Jackson. It is as if coverage of WWII had been preempted by the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall romance.

But there are also reasons for optimism. In June alone, Google hits on "Downing Street Memo" went from 250,000 to 1.5 million. More and more outlets are carrying the story, especially regional papers as more Americans grow disenchanted with the war.

David Swanson, co-founder of, believes this is the direct result of citizens forcing the story on a reluctant media. Still, he says, "We are miles from the level of serious coverage afforded something of national importance, like the Michael Jackson trial or Ken Starr's walk to get his morning newspaper."

But, he adds, "There are Congress members and senators taking important steps. Congressman Conyers has several new initiatives that will be announced shortly, and he and several other Congress members will be holding public forums in their districts on July 23, the 3-year anniversary of the meeting on Downing Street. Anyone interested can sign up to host a public meeting or a small house party, and others can sign up to attend it, on the Web site, where an extensive kit provides ample materials to produce a great event."

The tide seems to have turned against Bush and a compliant press. Still, Swanson believes a very large critical mass of angry Americans will be required to make a difference.

At the end of the day, the Downing Street Memo scandal is the proverbial half-full/half-empty glass. It has demonstrated both how deeply damaged is American democracy, but also how the capacity may still remain for a mobilized public to prevail over not only a hostile government, but a co-opted fourth estate as well.

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.


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I don't think it is a Dead-End , I would say more like stalled but on the move. The MSM is all but irelevant today and the more we tell them this (and the more of them that go to jail) can only help our fight. If site's like this didn't exist the DSM would be dead but this and all the other sites do exist and they are GROWING. I thank the founders of this and all the other sites on a daily basis. Anything worth while is worth waiting for no matter how frustrating the wait is.

- I add my thanks to yours,on a daily basis! do you have any sense of how these issues are taking hold? I have fairly limited resources at present, but I'm encouraged to see your comment about these sites growing! also, any other recommended sites?

The Blue Bus,Take Back the Media,Alex Jones', Light Up the Darkness,Take It To Karl,Bring Them Home Now,Military Families Speak Out,I spend more time on After Downing Street but there are many good ones.

This scares me! Something creepy is going on.

I just saw the presentation by Islee and Holt on C-SPAN. We have a president whose administration has sabotaged National Security! I call this a terrorist.

The majority of congress is aiding these terrorists in the administration. Isn't that impeachable?


Use this Subject heading for the above.

The Rove leak and DSM are linked. So we have GOT to point that out to the media.

If anyone reading this appears on any form of TV or radio show, ask, "Was Rove's attempt to discredit Joe Wilson part of the "fixing intelligence" that the DSM?

Repeat this over and over. Remind the braindead media of DSM.

Ali al-Timimi gets life in prison for inciting war. Sound like someone else you know ????

Solution: We need a new media, period. It's huge, rich, and kisses the feet of the administration that will give it more power to merge, monopolize and make itself more money.

Why don't we have a free press?

It's bought. "Hey, drop this bill by the house on your way to Starbucks--congressman, what's his name, we gave him 20K, he'll push it through."

So much for our way of democracy. No wonder Iraq doesn't want it.

Here's a start: Term limits. Level the playing field. Make the lobby's work harder to get our representative government to kiss their preverbeal assets and overlook what is better for the nation, not for the company that would rather manufacture their cheap product in Korea (KIA), China (Wal-Mart), Indonesia (everything else), ASIA etc.

Isn't it sad that these Corporatations run nice family commercials (showing every ethnic group in slow motion), and claim they have "higher" goals, aspirations, smile like they saw you at church, yet make bongo bucks off of forced slave waged labor internationally?

Same sort of people that would stop for a dog would run squish a J-walker (with a smile on their face). Pathetic.

These are all good points. Our current media is "wholly owned" and not by us. There is hope, and maybe help, on the way. Check it out:

Bush has my back! lo, I will not be brought down by you uninformed nay-sayers! Everybody knew she was in the CIA--after I told em.


I am surpised that Univision's Jorge Ramos , a media man, would not understand why the Downing Street Memos have gotten such little Media Coverage.

The blackout on the Downing Street Memos is a direct reflection of the political ideology of the owers of the FIVE to six MEDIA Conglomerates which own all of the U.S. mass media. Most, if not all, of the CEO'S and media owners support the failed policies of George W. Bush and his Neocan tugs.

In contrast, today, the mass media is using it's media might to help the Republican Propaganda machine defend Karl Rove, the man America loves to hate.

When America finally looses it's democracy you can thank AOL,Time, Warner, Disney,General Electric, Murdoch's New Corporation, Viacom and even the German company, Bertelsmann.
The Ceo's and owers of these companies were too busy feeding at the trough of capitalistic greed to care about reporting the truth of the many deceptions of the Bush Administration.

Public information left in the control of too few hands equals the DEATH OF DEMOCRACY! The Founding Fathers of this great country are turning over in their graves.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. We have a really serious problem on our hands.

I was very cautiously minutely optimistic when the minutes were exposed, and figured maybe this time the media would have some balls to confront the monster, but the problem is, they are part of the monster.

This country has really gone to shit.

time to rally support from the religious left.

mr Puig- any thoughts on compiling lists of their advertisers, actively boycotting, and bombarding them with letters as to WHY they're being boycotted? I think your point is a good one- it"s the money they're after. How can we use that?

I agree with Anonymous. Rove/DSM, Rove/DSM. The two must become one. Since the Rove story has gained momentum, then piggybacking the DSM story on to the Rove scandal can only help.

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