News Media Give Overlooked Memo on Iraq Second Glance

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with President Bush at a White House news conference June 7 during which Bush was asked about the Downing Street memo. The questioning led to widespread reporting on the 2002 memo on Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair with President Bush at a White House news conference June 7 during which Bush was asked about the Downing Street memo. The questioning led to widespread reporting on the 2002 memo on Iraq. (By Joe Marquette -- Bloomberg News)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

For many liberals already frustrated with the media's coverage of President Bush, it has become a rallying cry over the past six weeks: What about the Downing Street memo?

Their anger, amplified by left-wing advocacy groups, columnists, bloggers and some Democrats in Congress, has gradually forced the mainstream media to take a second look at a document that received spotty coverage after it was reported May 1 by London's Sunday Times.

Journalists offered various explanations for the scant attention paid to the July 2002 British memo, which, in recounting a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top aides, said that the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq and that war was inevitable. They said the memo was old, that the U.S. mobilization for war was widely reported at the time, that there was an initial distrust of a British press report. Some maintained that the memo didn't prove anything.

But Peter Hart of the liberal group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which sent out several "action alerts" urging members to contact news organizations, said, "Any story that reminds readers that the political and journalistic establishments spectacularly failed on Iraq is a difficult story for the media to report." Now, he said, in conjunction with groups such as, "activists have pushed this into the media, much to the chagrin of reporters, who have no love for getting e-mails constantly telling them to do the story."

For the past 15 years, conservatives have used their outlets -- in talk radio, right-leaning news operations, editorial pages and, more recently, blogs -- to pressure mainstream journalists into covering stories that might otherwise be ignored. And they have had striking success, from allegations about President Bill Clinton's personal life to CBS's questionable documents on President Bush's National Guard service to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year's presidential campaign. Now the left can claim a similar success.

Bob Fesmire said his wife, Gina, a Silicon Valley Web designer, and two others she met on the liberal blog Daily Kos, put together the site, which uses the slogan "Awaken the Mainstream Media!" Boosted by a mention last month in Paul Krugman's New York Times column, the site has logged close to 500,000 visits.

After other liberal commentators accused the media of "cowardice," as the Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel put it, for neglecting the Downing Street memo, some Democrats became more vocal in their criticism. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said it was "shocking when you see how easily they fold" under pressure from the White House and urged journalists to get some "spine." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who plans a forum on the memo today, began writing about it on Arianna Huffington's new blog.

"After the abject failure of the media to expose the myth of WMD and Iraq, the cheerleading coverage of 'embedded' reporters, and the transmission of propaganda to the American people . . . aren't we owed some good, sustained and thorough reporting on this?" Conyers wrote.

Critics, however, note that the memo by Richard Dearlove, then head of British intelligence, offered no specifics about any cooking of the intelligence books and could easily have been drawn from ongoing news accounts about the administration gearing up for war. In February 2002, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that "serious planning is underway within the Bush administration for a campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein" that could include military action. In August 2002, shortly after the memo was written, The Washington Post reported that "an increasingly contentious debate is underway within the Bush administration over how to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with the civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers of troops and military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious approaches that would employ far larger forces."

But the long and bitter debate that followed the war created a climate in which the memo would be seized upon by critics of the administration.

On May 2, the day after the story hit Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, the New York Times dealt with the memo in a dispatch from London on the final days of Blair's reelection campaign, beginning in the 10th paragraph.

Asked why the paper did not follow up for weeks, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman told the Times's public editor, or ombudsman: "Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street meeting did not seem like a bolt from the blue."

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