Thursday, June 9, 2005

No News There

Eric Boehlert reports on the under-reporting of the Downing Street Memo.

Halfway through Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” host Tim Russert, interviewing Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, asked about a secret, top-level British government memorandum. Consisting of minutes from a July 23, 2002, meeting attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his closest advisors, the memo revealed their impression that the Bush administration, eight months before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, had already decided to invade and that Washington seemed more concerned with justifying a war than preventing one.

The memo was leaked this year to the Times of London, which printed it on May 1. The story, coming on the eve of Blair’s reelection, generated extensive press coverage in Britain. In setting up his question to Mehlman on Sunday, Russert said, “Let me turn to the now famous Downing Street memo” (emphasis added).

Famous? It would be famous in America if the D.C. press corps functioned the way it’s supposed to.


The fact that it took five weeks for more than a handful of Washington reporters to focus on the memo highlights a striking disconnect between some news consumers and mainstream news producers. The memo story epitomizes a mainstream press corps that is genuinely afraid to ask tough questions and write tough stories about the Bush administration. Worse, in the case of the Downing Street memo, it simply refuses to report on the existence of a plainly newsworthy document.

“This is where all the work conservatives and the administration have done in terms of bullying the press, making it less willing to write confrontational pieces — this is where it’s paid off,” says David Brock, CEO of Media Matters for America, a liberal media advocacy group. “It’s a glaring example of omission.”


If the mainstream media showed little interest in the memo and its ramifications, those outside elite newsrooms did. On Tuesday, a query on the blog search engine Technorati retrieved 3,039 sites on which the Downing Street memo was being discussed.

“It’s something that’s struck a chord among NPR listeners and newspaper readers,” Dvorkin says. “It may have been blog-induced in the beginning, but now it has legs of its own.”

Across the country readers have been badgering their local newspapers to examine the memo story. None of the published correspondence appears to be form letters or so-called Astroturf letters designed to mimic grass-roots support for a particular issue. The letters have appeared in the Sunday Oregonian (Portland), Los Angeles Times, Raleigh News and Observer, Arizona Republic, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Anchorage Daily News, Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal, Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record, Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, Newport (Va.) News Daily Press, Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald, Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Modesto (Calif.) Bee and Tulsa World, among others.

With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, at the time the letters were published not one of the newspapers, according to the LexisNexis database, had reported on the memo.


Playing catch-up this week has produced some awkward moments for reporters, such as Russert’s referring to the memo as “famous” even though nobody at NBC News had ever bothered to report on it. On Monday, Fox News’ online site reported that the memo “has received little attention in the mainstream media, frustrating opponents of the Iraq war,” while failing to mention that Fox itself had effectively boycotted the memo story for five weeks. On Tuesday, Fox News finally reported that “there’s been a lot of controversy recently about a memo that suggests British officials warned well before the war in July of 2002 that the Bush administration felt war was inevitable.” Again, Fox failed to explain why the news organization had ignored a controversial story for more than a month.

If history is any guide, stories like this take a long time to get up a head of steam, but once they get rolling, they are very hard to stop. It looks like we of the Big Brass Alliance have overcome a little of the inertia, but we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, some legal scholars have looked into the idea of impeaching Bush over the Downing Street memo. As is the case with most lawyers, if you ask four of them for an opinion, you get five — or six — different answers depending on when you gave them the retainer. The consensus seems to be that in spite of the abuse of the impeachment clause by the Republicans in the Clinton case, the bar is still very high for proving “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it would be very hard to get a Congress where the majority of the members agree with the Bush foreign policy and the results of the invasion to turn and indict the President. In other words, politics trumps the law. But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions — after all, over 1,600 American soldiers and untold thousands of others have died in this war. Knowing whether or not we fought based on a pretext of lies is important. Does it rise to the level of impeachment? We don’t know — that’s what we want to find out.

Some of my more ardent colleagues in the blogosphere are calling for Bush’s head on a platter, and I admit to a somewhat visceral urge to go along with them on several levels. But having lived through two impeachments — one entirely legitimate, the other entirely not — I come down on the side of pursuing the truth regardless of where it leads. That is what we — and the victims of this war — deserve.