Ombudsman

News Over There, but Not Here

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By Michael Getler
Sunday, May 15, 2005

My e-mail in-box was once again inundated last week by write-in campaigns provoked by two self-described media watchdog organizations, both on the liberal side of things. The first critic out of its box and into mine is called Media Matters for America. The second one was FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), an organization that I wrote about last month.

There were more than 1,000 e-mails, plus some phone calls, all of them blasting The Post and some of them blasting me. The Post was attacked for not following up the disclosure by the London Sunday Times on May 1 about a secret memo by an aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002, recounting a meeting among Blair and his top aides eight months before the invasion of Iraq and after a trip to Washington by the head of British intelligence. The memo reported, among other things, that "military action was now seen as inevitable" in Washington and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

I've said in earlier columns that I don't like massive e-mail campaigns. But I've always made clear that the points these challenges raise can often be legitimate, and that's the case here. I don't know how to say this without seeming defensive, but I do think the case against the paper is a lot stronger than the case against me.

The case against me was laid out by Media Matters, which complained that in last Sunday's column I had taken note that a handful of readers had faulted the paper for not following up on the Times's disclosure, but that I didn't give an opinion about that criticism, as I usually do with most other issues raised in the ombudsman's column. That's a fair observation. The main reason I didn't express a view was that, at the time of my writing on May 5, I didn't know much about the London Times report other than what the six or seven readers who had e-mailed me said at the time.

The Post had reported essentially nothing. There was a glancing mention of the leaked memo in the Style section by columnist Tina Brown on May 5 and a one-sentence reference inside a news story on May 6 about Blair's election victory.

So what I chose to do was to give readers at least some idea what they were missing by including what seemed to be the most important quotes from the secret memo, but without further comment, in part because it was not clear to me yet if the memo was authentic or if there was something about its substance that wasn't apparent. When I asked editors at the time why there had been no coverage, I was told that "it was a story that, in the best of all worlds, would have been in the paper, but we were tied up with election coverage."

In subsequent questioning, editors agreed that this story should be covered and said they were going to go back and do that. On Friday, a solid story by reporter Walter Pincus was published on Page A18. Nevertheless, I have to say I'm amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up on the Times report.

The key line in the leaked memo, in my view, is the assessment by British intelligence, after a visit to Washington, that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." That kind of assertion has been made by critics and commentators, but it has not been included in official post-invasion assessments here about how the country went to war under what turned out to be false premises about weapons of mass destruction and other matters. Investigating that assessment, coming from the key U.S. ally in the war, certainly seems journalistically mandatory. Indeed, while official U.S. commissions and committees have documented just how bad U.S. intelligence was, they have stopped short of assessing what happened to that intelligence after it was prepared.

The Post also failed to report that, on May 5, 90 Democrats in Congress sent a letter to President Bush about the "troubling revelations" in the London Sunday Times that the United States and Britain "had secretly agreed to attack Iraq . . . before you even sought congressional authority."

There was, actually, very little coverage of the leaked memo anywhere in the U.S. press, with a couple of important exceptions. The New York Times, alertly, did a story right away from London on May 2, including some of the language from the memo and some reaction from Blair. The Knight Ridder news service distributed a story from Washington on May 6 putting the memo in the context of what official Washington had been saying at the time in 2002. It also quoted an unnamed "former senior U.S. official"" as describing the account of the senior British intelligence officer's visit to Washington as "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired." Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times also contributed an article prepared in London and Washington headlined "Indignation Grows in U.S. Over British Prewar Document." None of these stories were on the front page. Even though it was late, The Post should have broken that pattern.

How significant this memo may turn out to be is still to be determined. But the 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. It is a reminder of how powerfully the circumstances leading up to this war still reverberate within a sizable chunk of the population and why the press should not let go of any loose ends that may shed light on how this happened.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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