Bush lied about war? Nope, no news there!

Why did it take more than a month for the U.S. press to report on the serious revelations in the Downing Street memo?

Published June 9, 2005 10:15PM (EDT)

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. Russert's June 5 reference, five weeks after the story broke, represented the first time NBC News had even mentioned the document or the controversy surrounding it. In fact, Russert's query was the first time any of the network news divisions addressed the issue seriously. In an age of instant communications, the American mainstream media has taken an exceedingly long time -- as if news of the memo had traveled by vessel across the Atlantic Ocean -- to report on the leaked document. Nor has it considered its grave implications -- namely, that President Bush lied to the American people and Congress during the run-up to the war with Iraq when he insisted over and over again that war was his administration's last option.

And yet, as Russert's weeks-late inquiry illustrates, the Downing Street memo story has also refused to simply fade away. Championed by progressive activists, media advocates, nearly 100 Democratic members of Congress, liberal radio hosts and bloggers, ombudsmen, a handful of columnists and an army of newspaper readers -- who have flooded editors with letters demanding that the story be reported -- the British memo continues to enjoy a peculiar afterlife. A small band of protesters, led by a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, even held a sidewalk vigil outside a Tampa, Fla., television station over the weekend, demanding that it "Air the truth!" about the memo.

At Tuesday's joint White House press briefing, Bush and Blair were finally asked about the memo in public, an event that the press dutifully chronicled. But the two leaders, not accepting follow-up questions, simply denied the accuracy of the memo's contents, while circumventing the central question of why Blair's most senior intelligence officer believed the White House had already decided on war in the summer of 2002. (Bush finished his response to the memo question with his well-worn catchphrase, "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.")

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."

"I think it exacerbates the sense among some [of our] listeners that NPR is not taking on the Bush administration," notes Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for National Public Radio, who continues to receive listener complaints about the missing memo story. As of Tuesday, NPR had aired just two references to the Downing Street memo, and both occurred in passing conversation, without giving listeners the full context or the details of the memo. Asked about the network's slim coverage, Dvorkin says, "I was surprised. It's a bigger story than we've given it. It deserves more attention."

Slowly, the Downing Street memo is getting that attention. "Stories are starting to trickle in now only because so many ordinary people are raising hell about it," says David Swanson, co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.org, which launched on May 26. This week, thanks to constant exposure on the Air America radio network, the site is receiving 1.7 million hits a day, according to Swanson. "My colleagues are doing more radio shows than we can fit in during a day."

The memo provides plenty to talk about -- particularly the passage (no doubt memorized by agitated war critics) that refers to Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to only as "C" in the memo), and his impressions from a visit to the United States:

"C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the U.N. route ... There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

That more reporters, editors and producers didn't grasp the obvious significance of the memo remains baffling. As Mark Danner spelled out in the June 9 issue of the New York Review of Books, the memo helps establish five key facts in understanding how the still-deadly war in Iraq unfolded:

"1. By mid-July 2002, eight months before the war began, President Bush had decided to invade and occupy Iraq.

"2. Bush had decided to 'justify' the war 'by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.'

"3. Already, 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.'

"4. Many at the top of the [U.S.] administration did not want to seek approval from the United Nations (going 'the U.N. route').

"5. Few in Washington seemed much interested in the aftermath of the war. "

Yet despite the news peg, the mainstream media demonstrated a breathtaking lack of interest. According to TVEyes, an around-the-clock monitoring service, between May 1 and June 6 the story received approximately 20 mentions on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS combined. (With Blair's arrival in Washington Tuesday, there was a slight spike in mentions but still very little reporting of substance.) By contrast, during the same five-week period, the same outlets found time to mention 263 times the tabloid controversy that erupted when a photograph showing Saddam Hussein in his underwear was leaked to the British press.

Since the Times of London published the memo on May 1, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has held 19 daily briefings, at which he has fielded approximately 940 questions from reporters, according to the White House's online archives. Exactly two of those questions have been about the Downing Street memo and the White House's reported effort to fix prewar intelligence. (Three weeks after the memo was leaked in Britain, McClellan prefaced a response to a question about it by telling White House reporters he was not familiar with "the specific memo.")

Until Tuesday, the number of U.S. newspaper articles reporting on the Downing Street memo could be counted on two hands, including two articles in the New York Times, two in the Washington Post (print edition), and one each in Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. Only the Chicago Tribune article ran on Page 1, and it focused on how little commotion the memo had caused in the United States, noting, "The White House has denied the premise of the memo, the American media have reacted slowly to it and the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war." Additionally, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau covered the story for its chain of newspapers.

Looking back, Jim Cox, USA Today's senior assignment editor for foreign news, says not reporting on the memo was a mistake. "I wish we'd had something in early on, and I wish we'd been able to move the memo story forward. I feel like we missed an opportunity, and that's my fault," he tells Salon. But Cox takes issue with readers who complain that Americans have been kept in the dark about the memo's revelation that Bush had made up his mind on going to war long before he approached the United Nations and asked for a coalition to be formed. "The memo doesn't say something we haven't heard in one way or another over the last two and a half years," Cox says.

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.

Meanwhile, ombudsmen for the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Public Radio have all gone on record admonishing their own news organizations for slow-footed responses to the memo. The Post's Michael Getler, siding with upset readers, gave the paper a thumbs-down for its handling of the story. He noted that readers' "reaction to the failure to cover it, even with the hyperbole and worst assumptions about journalistic motives by some of the e-mailers, is understandable."

At the Times, public editor Byron Calame noted that the paper was quick with a memo story from London on May 2, "but the news coverage languished until this morning [May 20] when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today -- and left critics of the paper's news columns to suspect the worst about its motives." Responding to a query by Calame regarding the paper's lack of coverage, Times Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman suggested the Downing memo was old news: "Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street meeting did not seem like a bolt from the blue."

What's more, the reporting that was done in May was often less than stellar. The New York Times' belated follow-up on May 20 was less than 800 words long, and despite a headline that read "British Memo on U.S. Plans for Iraq War Fuels Critics," Times reporter did not interview a single war critic about the memo or its implications.

The issue was barely discussed on television, and when it did pop up, hosts appeared to have no interest. For example, here's the May 25 exchange between actor and activist Tim Robbins and Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball."

Robbins: I think there should be more discussion about the Downing Street memo and less about Newsweek. I think that that story seemed to be buried. And there seems to be a lot of questions that the Downing Street memo raises.

Matthews: Tell me about that.

Robbins: Well, it suggests that the administration knew full well they were being duplicitous and were operating with weak intelligence.

Matthews: Well, they -- well, they did tell us at the time, Tim, that the best argument for getting the Europeans to join us in the war was using the WMD argument, but it wasn't their primary purpose. The primary purpose apparently was democratization in the Middle East, nation building.

Robbins: And I think they didn't mention that until much later, Chris. I think that the original -- original reason was that [Saddam] was an imminent threat.

Matthews: Let me ask you about Hollywood. Do you think Hollywood, in its critique of this president, has been effective? Somebody put up a sign recently to Hollywood: "Thank you, Hollywood, for getting Bush reelected."

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.

That's just the latest press oddity surrounding the memo story, says Swanson at AfterDowningStreet.org. "It's very strange that when it now comes up in the media, it's described as well known. It's not well known. Most people don't know anything about the memo. It's very disturbing."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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