The media's Downing Street rebound?

The secret British memo isn't the ultimate smoking gun, but outcry over the initial scant coverage of it may be helping the story get its proper legs now.

Published June 15, 2005 5:55PM (EDT)

"A wide range of critics, including the ombudsmen of the New York Times and Washington Post, say the press bobbled the ball on the Downing Street Memo," writes media critic Howard Kurtz today. (Bobbled it, as Salon's Eric Boehlert notes, while the Associated Press flat out dropped it.) "The memo may not be the slam-dunk about the Bush administration fixing intelligence that its supporters believe -- the British author cites no specifics as proof -- but it was a newsworthy and provocative development, as the press is belatedly realizing," Kurtz says.

But is it possible that a flat-footed mainstream media may have actually helped the political left's cause? Its scant initial coverage got the left particularly fired up over the memo, which in turn has brought the issue more press now, perhaps even more than it might have otherwise received. Boosted by the blame-the-media story, the belated coverage is forcing another look at the Bush administration's deceptions and manipulations in the run-up to the war.

It's also important to consider just exactly what the memo revealed. The memo reaffirmed, in the view of Britain's intelligence chief, that "Washington" saw war as inevitable by July 2002, and that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." We didn't need a secret memo to know this, as the L.A. Times' Michael Kinsley pointed out over the weekend with a look back at media coverage from that time forecasting war on the horizon. And the memo doesn't actually prove Bush had decided on war by July 2002, any more than it shows he'd decided on it in the days immediately after the Twin Towers crumbled (as Rumsfeld apparently had, according to Bob Woodward's book).

What is perhaps most important about the memo is that it puts key questions back on the table, in compelling terms, as to why and how the administration marched the nation into a war -- one that is increasingly costly and unpopular. As Kurtz notes, that speaks to a motivated constituency: "The bottom line is this: There's still a huge amount of post-Iraq anger out there toward Bush, and liberals are frustrated that the red part of the country doesn't share their view. So the press must be doing a lousy job, right? The press performance in covering this tightly disciplined administration has been far from perfect, especially on Iraq. But it's worth remembering that during the Clinton years, it was conservatives who saw the media as being embarrassingly soft on the White House."

Whether or not that was the case -- the press was plenty vigorous in its pursuit of Whitewater and Monica -- the stakes are an awful lot higher now.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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