Web Only / Features » July 13, 2005
Downing Street: A Dead-End In American Media
“What is surprising, 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.” –Jorge Ramos Avalos, Washington correspondent for Univision.
The Downing Street Memos have provided an unexpected fright for the minority of Americans who are aware of them.
It’s not that presidents lie about the wars they send other people’s kids off to fight. And it’s not even that the media in this country has grown lazy, intimidated and sycophantic. It’s the degree to which this is true, and the deterioration of American democracy to which it testifies. At the same moment we were revisiting the Watergate story and celebrating the dogged persistence that unmasked the crimes of Richard Nixon, the media largely ignored what is one of the biggest stories since the end of the Cold War.
Five main indictments emanate from this growing series of leaked documents. First, that the Bush administration decided to go to war earlier than was publicly stated. Second, that the reasons he gave for the war were bogus. Third, that Bush lied in saying that the war could have been avoided. Fourth, that the war actually began almost a year earlier than is assumed. And fifth, that the administration did almost no planning for the aftermath of the invasion.
The media’s response to these allegations has been to ignore, distort, deny and denigrate them.
Why blow off such a huge story? Cindy Sheehan says, “The press and the public are afraid to admit they were duped, because that would mean they have to take partial responsibility for the mess in Iraq. It would take a great deal of personal integrity and honesty to admit that.” Sheehan is the mother of Casey Sheehan, who was killed in action on April 4, 2004 in Sadr City. She has since co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace and is a highly visible activist in the anti-war movement.
The story was almost completely absent from the mainstream media, especially in the weeks following May 1 when the story broke in the Sunday Times of London. A classic example was offered by the New York Times, which reported this bombshell in its coverage of the British elections, but somehow never thought to raise it as an issue of American politics. Even Times Public Editor Byron Calame found this inexcusable. “It appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue–their authenticity undisputed–probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers,” he wrote.
But Calame was only addressing this at all because the Times was being bombarded by angry reader correspondence. Since this was happening all over, the media had to change tack. When ignoring the memos no longer proved viable, they began to substitute very limited reporting coupled with distortion and denial. The mainstream media approach has been to ignore most of the Downing Street memo implications, dismiss others by arguing that everyone in Washington knew the president was going to war back in late 2002, and grudgingly admit that there could have been better “post-war’” planning.
The public, of course, had a very different understanding–an understanding based on what the president had said. Even if Washington insiders were discussing the pending invasion over dinner, the president was telling Americans that he was seeking to avoid war at all costs, and very many of them believed him.
Bush said that war was to be his last resort, that Saddam could avoid it by telling the truth about WMDs, that he went to the U.N. to try to solve the problem peacefully, that Iraq represented such an urgent threat to U.S. security he could no longer wait for the inspectors to finish their work, that he therefore gave the order to attack in March 2003, and that U.N. resolutions gave him the authority to do so.
Not a single one of those assertions was truthful, as the Downing Street Memos prove. Bush actually began attacking Iraq in July 2002. The purpose was to provoke a response that could become a casus belli for invasion. Ditto the entire U.N. inspections, which were done only in the hopes that Saddam would refuse inspections and thus provide a pretext for war. And we all know now about the distortion of intelligence concerning WMDs and al Qaeda links.
Or do we? The media has rightly focused on the smoking gun in these memos, which states that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” But focusing exclusively on this line allows another popular dodge, the claim that “fixed” has another meaning in Britspeak, to be “bolted on.” Apart from the fact that the Brits themselves find this a laughable bit of news about their dialect, making this argument requires ignoring the rest of the document’s content, not least the line stating that the case for attacking Iraq was “thin,” as well as the rest of the context (like the fact the Bush people actually were, in fact, wildly distorting intelligence at this time, as the memo explains).
Hitting Rock Bottom
The nadir prize within mainstream American journalism probably goes to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post for his curled-lip rendering of Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) ad hoc hearing on the memos. It was ad hoc because the House Republican majority has every interest in burying this scandal, so much so that they wouldn’t even give Conyers a conference room in the Capitol to use, despite the fact that several were available. (Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ultimately found him a stuffy basement room of about 20’ by 30’.) To further stymie Conyers, the Republicans simultaneously scheduled important committee meetings and an astounding 11 floor votes–a House record.
Milbank had a slightly different perspective on the event in a story labeled “Washington Sketch.” Titled “Democrats Play House To Rally Against the War,” Milbank began with this lead-in: “In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe.” Milbank went well out of his way to mock Conyers, omit salient facts, erroneously report others, and even somehow manage to play the anti-Semitism card.
Fortunately, it produced what Post Ombudsman Michael Getler described as “a torrent of critical e-mails,” which in turn led to him calling the paper’s sole coverage of the news event by a columnist “a serious mistake.” (In his column a week earlier, Getler had also written “The bulk of the mail last week, by far, was focused once again on the ‘Downing Street Memo.’”) Without the leadership of Conyers and the electronic foments of an angry blogopublic, Downing Street would have been DOA in the USA.
It is the efforts of these folks, in particular, that have produced the most bizarre, yet hopeful, aspect of this sad display of journalism. A huge proportion of media articles and talk-show blatherings on the Downing Street Memo scandal has been devoted to discussing why the media is not covering the story, even while they continue to do just that. Rather than decide to actually cover this story of monstrous proportions, they resorted instead to bogus and pathetic bouts of existential soul-searching.
What is especially disconcerting about this noncoverage is what it says about the state of American media, and to a lesser extent, its junk-news consumers. According to one count of TV segments covering this story versus those concerning Natalee Holloway (the Alabama teenager who went missing in Aruba) and Michael Jackson, from May 1 through June 20 on network news there were only 6 mentions of the Downing Street Memo (all on NBC), but 174 for Holloway and 465 for Jackson. It is as if coverage of WWII had been preempted by the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall romance.
But there are also reasons for optimism. In June alone, Google hits on “Downing Street Memo” went from 250,000 to 1.5 million. More and more outlets are carrying the story, especially regional papers as more Americans grow disenchanted with the war.
David Swanson, co-founder of Afterdowningstreet.org, believes this is the direct result of citizens forcing the story on a reluctant media. Still, he says, “We are miles from the level of serious coverage afforded something of national importance, like the Michael Jackson trial or Ken Starr’s walk to get his morning newspaper.”
But, he adds, “There are Congress members and senators taking important steps. Congressman Conyers has several new initiatives that will be announced shortly, and he and several other Congress members will be holding public forums in their districts on July 23, the 3-year anniversary of the meeting on Downing Street. Anyone interested can sign up to host a public meeting or a small house party, and others can sign up to attend it, on the afterdowningstreet.org Web site, where an extensive kit provides ample materials to produce a great event.”
The tide seems to have turned against Bush and a compliant press. Still, Swanson believes a very large critical mass of angry Americans will be required to make a difference.
At the end of the day, the Downing Street Memo scandal is the proverbial half-full/half-empty glass. It has demonstrated both how deeply damaged is American democracy, but also how the capacity may still remain for a mobilized public to prevail over not only a hostile government, but a co-opted fourth estate as well.
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David Michael Green
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.
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