Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and activism
June 14, 2005
After over a month of scant media attention, mainstream U.S. outlets have begun to report more seriously about the "Downing Street Memo," the minutes of a July 2002 meeting of British government officials that indicate the White House had already made up its mind to invade Iraq at that early date, and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of invading rather than seeking a peaceful solution.
A June 7 White House press conference with George W. Bush and Tony Blair offered the first public response from Bush to the memo, and with that came an upswing in U.S. media attention. But some in the media took it as a chance to lash out at the activists who have been bringing attention to the story all along. On June 8, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank referred to Downing Street Memo activists--some of whom were offering a cash reward for the first journalist to ask Bush about the memo--as "wing nuts." He also offered an illogical explanation for the memo's low media profile:
"In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn't election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it's also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward, among others. The memo was also more newsworthy across the Atlantic because it reinforced the notion there that Blair has been acting as Bush's 'poodle.'"
Milbank had reported the same day (6/8/05) that his paper's latest poll showed that only 41 percent of Americans approved of the Iraq war--which makes one wonder when exactly the war would cross Milbank's threshold and become unpopular enough to make the memo newsworthy. Secondly, Milbank argued the memo isn't news because other similar stories were once reported--a peculiar explanation, to be sure. Finally, Milbank's third rationale--that the memo was news in the U.K. because it confirmed existing suspicions--would seem to directly contradict the second principle of not reporting familiar stories.
Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley opted for sarcasm over serious discussion, deriding activists in a June 12 column for sending him emails "demanding that I cease my personal cover-up of something called the Downing Street Memo." Kinsley kidded that the fuss was a good sign for the Left: "Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes ideological self-confidence."
What does Kinsley mean by paranoid? Criticizing the Times for not giving the story much attention would be accurate: Prior to the Bush-Blair press conference, a Nexis search shows one story about the Downing Street minutes appeared in the paper nearly two weeks after the story broke (5/12/05), and that columnist Robert Scheer mentioned it a few days later (5/17/05).
In fact, Kinsley's mocking seemed to serve no purpose, since his fallback position is a familiar media defense: We all knew the Bush administration wanted war, so this simply isn't news. As Kinsley put it, "Of course, you don't need a secret memo to know this." As for "intelligence and facts...being fixed around the policy," Kinsley eventually acknowledged that "we know now that this was true."
So, to follow Kinsley's logic: People who demand more Downing Street coverage have developed a "paranoid theory" that accurately portrays White House decision-making on Iraq. His only quarrel with what he calls a "vast conspiracy" pushing the mainstream media to take the memo more seriously is that the activists think such information is important, and should be brought to the attention of the public, whereas Kinsley--and apparently many others in the mainstream media--doesn't "buy the fuss."
Contact the Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler and ask him if it is appropriate to label media activists "wing nuts" in a news story. Also, ask Los Angeles Times editor Michael Kinsley to explain how Downing Street Memo activists are peddling a "paranoid theory" that he also suggests is correct.
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Los Angeles Times
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