Asleep at the Wheel  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2005

Asleep at the Wheel   

The media’s perplexing performance on the Downing Street memo

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Back before I became obsessed with journalism, I was obsessed with drag racing.

I loved nothing more than heading to South Jersey–-there were no drag strips in Philadelphia–-to Atco or Vineland, to see just how quickly my '60 Chevy (the one with the spray-painted gold wheels and Sun tach and lakes pipes) could navigate the quarter mile.

It was my good fortune to do this on a number of occasions with the Untouchables, a car club based in Philly's western suburbs whose members' red shirts featured an embroidered roller skate enhanced by a huge, souped-up engine.

Besides fast cars, the Untouchables loved a rock 'n' roll singer named Big Al Downing. And there was a strict code. If someone said "Big Al Downing," the only correct response was "Better than Fats Domino."

Big Al Downing I got. What I don't get is the American news media's tepid response to the Downing Street memo.

Think about it: A memo surfaces revealing that Britain's top intelligence official, after meeting with the Americans, concludes that the Bush administration has decided--eight months before the fighting began--that it's going to war in Iraq. Despite public assurances to the contrary, it was a done deal. What's more, the official reports, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Sounds like a story to me. And it did to the editors at the London Sunday Times, which published an article about the memo on May 1.

But to American news executives? Not so much. The New York Times merely mentioned the memo the following day in a piece about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's reelection. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times took more than a week before reporting on it. Many papers simply ignored it altogether. The memo was virtually invisible on TV for weeks on end. The Associated Press didn't file a story until June, more than a month after the memo was disclosed. (At least the wire service had the class to admit the obvious, that it had "dropped the ball.")

You'd think that after the media's stunningly credulous performance during the run-up to the war, when it was hopelessly taken in by all that bogus "evidence" of WMD, editors would be more careful. But you'd be wrong.

Many dismissed it as "nothing new." Now I read Woodward's book and I'm as much a Washington insider wannabe as the next guy, and I was hardly shocked by the revelation. But seems to me this was a germane new fact.

Another popular cop-out was the notion that the memo just wasn't a "smoking gun." Maybe not. But if that's our new standard for running stories, look forward to some awfully slim newspapers and brief newscasts.

Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt, whose bureau produced the first full-fledged piece on the memo in the American press, summed up best what it was . He told AJR's Kim Hart in an interview for her excellent online story about the issue ("Web Special: A Story At Last"), "We believe that it's another important piece in the mosaic of understanding the process by which we went to war in Iraq."

Another dispiriting aspect of this odd episode is the fact that news organizations began to mention the memo after President Bush and Blair were asked about it at a news conference on June 7, five weeks after it came to light. Let's see if I get this: The document isn't news in and of itself, but it becomes news when public officials say something about it? What's up with that?

Years ago the media's collective shrug would have buried the memo. That it ultimately, slowly, made its way into the spotlight is due to the power of the blogs. Much of the blogosphere's raison d'être seems to be monitoring the mainstream media and hammering away until it gets the big boys' attention. And if this is the way the MSM is going to operate, I'd say that's a good thing. (See "Journalism's Backseat Drivers." )

Many bloggers are driven by partisan impulses, and I've got enough inner Len Downie that it makes me uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean they can't play a valuable role. The bloggers, after all, can't force anyone to do anything. What they can do is give news organizations a mulligan, another opportunity to get it right.

If news outlets avoid the reflexive defensive reaction (not always easy, particularly when some of the critiques are personal and mean-spirited), if they reexamine their work to see if they missed something or got something wrong and then act on their conclusion, then they--and their audiences--will be the better for it.

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