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Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

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  + CHANGES TO THE ALBION MONITOR WEBSITE   Sometime around the third week of June, the Monitor archive passed the 9000 article milestone. The search page is now updated with a better source for searching the Associated Press, which also has the advantage of not requiring prior registration.   (June 30, 2005)

More on Downing St. Memo media coverage

  + NEWS FIRST, OPINION LATER, OKAY?   And lo, it came to pass: Some three score days since the call went forth for armies to gather and rain pebbles from a thousand thousand slingshots upon Goliath, the giant called out: "If I giveth thee five column inches above the fold, will thy smiting cease?"

Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly a Biblical event, but many a jaw still dropped on the morning of June 28 after the Washington Post finally covered the Downing St. Memo. On the front page, no less. The article appeared almost three months after the Downing St. Memo was first made public (see item below), and following a nasty little dustup between a Post star reporter and an anti-war advocacy group. But first, an update on some of the media coverage since our last report:

Although there have been newsworthy developments in the release of additional British memorandums (there are now six or eight depending how you count, but we'll continue to use the singular here) and unofficial hearings on Capitol Hill, the story continued to languish. Only a few national pundits made mention in the latter half of July, including follow-up columns by Memo media pioneers Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman. About three dozen mainstream media outlets picked up the June 18 AP item on the Memo and/or the AP's excerpts, which was the first appearance of any Memo story on the wire service. This was a miserable showing; a few days later, about five times as many newspapers and broadcasters reported that comedian David Spade was developing a show for cable TV's Comedy Central. As for comparing Memo coverage side-by-side to a real media event such as the Michael Jackson acquittal, haul out a strong microscope.

More editorials appeared insisting the Memo's not important because there's no "smoking gun," or that it's old news because magazines and books long ago made it clear that Bush was a lying jackanape. Some more editorial page writers complained about the heavy volume of mail demanding coverage and defended their lack thereof (some also noted that the messages were coming from "lefties"). In an op/ed tour de force, the Cleveland Plain Dealer drove past all these points, then swerved off the road by calling on fellow editors to cover the Memo so it won't be "ignored or buried [as was] the 'Swift Boat Veterans' story a year ago."

The Memo made its first appearance in the Wall St. Journal with a June 28 echo-chamber story, concentrating on how the memos "have galvanized left-leaning activists" and describing how a small group of blog-readers decided to "target news operations" with mass mailings because they were "certain they had stumbled onto the smoking gun that could drag the Bush administration down." As you can probably gather, the story had more slant than the sunken Titanic's decks.

But the most vicious response of all came from the Washington Post, where reporter cum political columnist Dana Milbank ridiculed Congressman John Conyers "and his hearty band of playmates" for holding an unsanctioned hearing on the Memo, then later charged that "followers" of, part of the coalition and "a group of left-wing activists" in Milbank's eyes, were harassing him and other journalists "with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech" (MORE) -- a serious accusation that Milbank has yet to back up. Later ombudsman Getler not only defended Milbank's swipes, but even criticized media watchdog FAIR for pointing out its own failure to make clear whether Milbank was writing as a reporter or columnist. No matter which hat he supposedly wore at the time, the piece was an outrage.

What's maddening is the continuing pose that fundamental information about the Memo has somehow become common knowledge -- just as the Washington Post (and others) initially dismissed the Memo because it was presumed everyone knew about pre-war White House scheming described in books by Bob Woodward and others. And, of course, once you assume the audience knows the basics, you can race ahead to spouting opinions. In the case of the Memo, bloviating is all the U.S. press seems to want to do. Sorry -- placing the editorial cart before the news page horse ain't honest journalism.

So let's start a new e-mail campaign to pester editors everywhere. Let's demand that newspapers and broadcasters refrain from spewing opinion until the audience has been offered at least one factual story on the topic. Lay off the Washington Post, though; now that the paper has offered readers some nice front page acreage on the Memo, Dana Milbank can shoot his fool mouth off all he wants.   (June 28, 2005)

The Downing St. Memo and the press


Surprise: Bush Lied to Us (Molly Ivins)

The Secret Way To War

Talk about your bizarre media echo chambers: After weeks of shamefully ignoring the Downing Street Memo, the U.S. mainstream media is buzzing over the discovery that the the U.S. mainstream media shamefully ignored the Downing Street Memo.

The Memo -- a July 2002 report from a British diplomat just returned from Washington -- made much stink in England after it was published in the London Sunday Times May 2, just four days before the national vote on Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Military action was now seen as inevitable" by U.S. officials, the Memo says. Most damning was a section claiming, "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."

Aside from a passing glance in a NY Times update on the British elections and a short Knight-Ridder item picked up by a handful of newspapers, the U.S. mainstream media ignored the story. Nothing new about that; almost all items in the 404 reports section are about big stories that nosedive in the American press, many arguably more important than the Memo -- go tromp through the archives.

But starting around mid-May, several unusual things happened. All types of media found their mailboxes awash with letters demanding coverage of the Memo; Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler reported over a thousand in one week alone, which spurred him to peevishly complain about the volume of mail. (Judging from correspondence received by the Albion Monitor and printed in a variety of newspapers, few, if any of those messages were bulk-mailed "astroturf." That would change by the end of the month, however; now all mail we receive about the Memo is astroturf sent from coalition sites.) Ombuds from the NY Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution also commented on the size of the mailbag and attempted to justify their newspaper's Memo snub. We were too busy and anyway, we mentioned it briefly in that British election story, wrote the Times. The AJC ombudsman defended the paper by noting that they run plenty of other stories about Iraq, and anyway, they'll soon have a reporter and photographer embedded with the troops.

It's blue-moon time when newspapers run letters about stories they haven't covered, or editors defend their failure to keep readers informed. But even stranger yet, the conservative wing of the media began to crow about the poor coverage of the Memo story. In the very first page-one item about the Memo to appear in the U.S, the Chicago Tribune wrote that the story is "fizzling in U.S." because "the public generally seems indifferent to the issue." Fox gloated that the Memo "has received little attention in the mainstream media, frustrating opponents of the Iraq war." Like the defensive ombuds, the Trib and Fox assumed that its audiences knew about the Memo, albeit from a media source other than themselves.

Rarely is a passed-over story resurrected by the press, but mirabile dictu, a trickle of stories began to appear in the Washington Post, LA Times, and other major papers. Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman wrote columns. While most of the U.S. press still kept mum, the story now clearly had legs. When Bush was directly asked a question about it at a June 7 news conference, the Memo was finally mentioned for the first time on network news and many American front pages. Oddest of these debuts was the USA TODAY offering, which ended with a quick recap of the Memo's lightweight media coverage and the excuse that they hadn't mentioned it for the previous five weeks because they couldn't get "explicit confirmation of its authenticity" from the Brits. It was the strangest apology to appear in an American newspaper since -- well, ever.

So why did the U.S. press drag its feet on reporting the Downing St. Memo? It's the wrong question to ask: Wonder instead why there's been so little media fuss over any of the evidence that the Bush White House secretly schemed to take out Saddam from virtually the first days of the administration.

There's a bookshelf of material that was published last year on this long, secret trek to war. Start with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's The Price of Loyalty: "Already by February, the talk was mostly about logistics," O'Neill reveals. "Not the why, but the how and how quickly [emphasis his]." The February referred to here is 2001, by the way. Turn next to Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies: Clarke returns to the West Wing in the wee hours of Sept. 12, 2001 -- with his Secret Service-issued .357 tucked in his belt -- and finds the place alive with discussions. The topic? Not civil defense, not Al Qaeda, but Iraq. Spend some time reading Bob Woodward's Plan Of Attack, which documents two years of anti-Saddam plotting, including the $700 million apparently illegally diverted in July 2002 from the war in Afghanistan. And when you've polished off that book, finish with Sen. Bob Graham's Intellegence Matters, which includes a handy 11-point checklist of reasons for George W. Bush's impeachment.

There are other smoking guns to be found in each of these bestsellers, revelations that are more serious and even more credible than the Downing St. Memo. Did any of those stories make the front pages? No. Even when Paul Wolfowitz was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee last April about the $700 million shifted to Iraq, only a handful of short articles appeared, all deep inside the newspapers. (For the record, Wolfowitz justified it by claiming the money went only "to strengthen our capabilities in the region," and "no funding was made available for those things that had Iraq as the exclusive purpose." Nothing more about the issue has appeared since.)

It would be easy to claim stories like these don't garner headlines because the U.S. press goes easy on all things Bush, but the truth is more complex. One cause is the media's constant fear of losing turf; no editor is keen about picking up stories already published in books, magazines, -- or worse, competing media sources, even those an ocean away. Thus when the Downing Street Memo's contents were finally described in the NY Times three long weeks after the London newspaper broke the story, the article hung from a slim, but original news hook: "British Memo on U.S. Plans for Iraq War Fuels Critics," was the headline (yet curiously, that piece did not include a single quote about the Memo from a critic). Compounding that is the fear of being caught pants-down. Care about the authenticity of documents is vital, but that's impossible to guarantee if you don't have access to the papers yourself. This makes it necessary for the newspaper or broadcaster to not only credit the competition for the scoop, but to rely entirely on their competitor's reputation for the story's credibility. Double ugh.

But the main reason the Downing St. Memo was shunned can probably be found in a June 8 column by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank: "In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn't election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it's also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward, among others." In other words, Faithful Reader doesn't need to be told about the deceits of 2002 because F.R. already knows about them. Or should.

Without intending, Milbank pinpoints one of the major flaws of the U.S. press today: The belief that the media's job starts and ends with reporting only the most current events. To him, the new discovery of a three-year-old British government memo has no relevance except as a historical footnote. Milbank also makes the mistake of linking the Downing Street Memo to the British election story; why on earth would anyone care to rehash pre-election stories now that the election's over? By defending the poor initial U.S. media coverage, Milbank and the others are, essentially, arguing against the American public's right to know whether the reasons for war were trumped up by the Bush White House. That's simply amazing.

The lesson here is that the periscopic defintion of "news" shared by Milbank and most of the U.S. press often works to supress vital information instead of disseminating it. How in the world did all this come to happen? When did American journalism develop such an arrogant, rigid view of what "news" means?   (June 14, 2005)

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