Why the Mainstream Media Is Catching On
Internet Bloggers Push Downing Street Memo Onto the News Agenda
By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005; 12:20 PM
The Downing Street Memo continues to spread in American political discussion despite efforts to dismiss its significance.
The DSM story, as the top-secret British document it is known on the Internet, has legs because it really 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.
Michael Smith, ace reporter for the Sunday Times, continues to lead the journalistic pack on the story, again demonstrating that there is more news in the British official record of war preparations. Smith reported last weekend that the British Foreign Office had concluded in early 2002 that stepped-up U.S. and British attacks on Iraq in the so-called no-fly zone violated international law. Smith's story was based on a "confidential" document entitled "Iraq: Legal Background" that was attached to the original DSM which was presented to senior British officials in July 2002.
The original memo reported that British defence secretary Geoff Hoon said that "the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime" by attacking Iraqi installations starting in May 2002.
The "Legal Background" document shows that the British Foreign Office concluded in March 2002 such attacks could only be legally justified by self-defense, imminent threat or humanitarian crisis as defined by a United Nations resolution.
"The increased attacks on Iraqi installations, which senior US officers admitted were designed to 'degrade' Iraqi air defences, began six months before the UN passed resolution 1441, which the allies claim authorised military action," Smith wrote.
Thomas Wagner, an Associated Press reporter in London, advanced the DSM story when he reported that there was not one but a series of eight British memos "that have renewed questions and debate about Washington's motives for ousting Saddam Hussein."
"In one of the memos, British Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts asks whether Bush administration had a clear and compelling military reason for war," Wagner wrote in a story picked up by the Times of India, the Winnepeg Sun and Xinhua, the Chinese news service.
"US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing," Ricketts said in the memo. "For Iraq, 'regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam."
Univision.com, Web site of the international Spanish-language TV network with a big U.S. audience, also picked up the story.
"What is surprising," said Washington correspondent Jorge Ramos Avalos, 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."
"Taken together, these papers amount to an indictment of the way the British and American peoples were led to war," says columnist Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian.
Some in the American mainstream media, or MSM as bloggers call it, dispute the Downing Street memo offers anything new that would change public understanding of the decision to go to war in Iraq.
"The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations," declared the editorial page of The Washington Post last week. " Hearsay ," said the Rocky Mountain News. And radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has suggested, without evidence, the documents may be forged. (In fact, The British government has not challenged the authenticity of any of the documents cited in recent news reports.)
But an increasing number of news editors are recognizing the newsworthiness of the DSM story. Newsday , the New York tabloid, picked up the AP story. The Houston Chronicle published DSM excerpts this week. So did the San Francisco Chronicle. The editors of the Detroit Free Press say the DSM story is "too significant to be dismissed as simply old news -- as the White House would like -- or left to historians."
These aren't the big-name national news organizations that bloggers call the MSM. But nor are they partisan liberal organs inclined to buy into fact-free theories. The interest of such regional media mainstays demonstrates how the Internet has transformed the news business.
Thousands of bloggers now do the sort of sifting and weighing and disseminating of information that was formerly the exclusive province of a relatively small group of media professionals concentrated in the East Coast. The growing DSM coverage, said the BBC this week, is a "bloggers' victory."
News editors can read the DSM documents and the original Times of London stories themselves. They might be persuaded by the reporting of The Post's Dana Milbank who portrayed Rep. John Conyers's DSM hearings on Capitol Hill last week as an excursion into the "land of make-believe". But with a click of the mouse they can go to the coverage of the same event in the Guardian of London and see the DSM story described as "tantamount to the first word of tapes in the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal."
The point is not that either account has a monopoly on truth, but now there is another force that can help put a story on the news agenda.
Thanks to the global reach of the Internet, the two-month-old scoop of a London daily continues to live in the American political debate and diverse areas of the media landscape.
Mary Specht provided research for this column.