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 MoveOn.org, "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 DowningStreetMemo.com, 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."
John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of Knight Ridder Newspapers, co-authored a substantial story about the memo on May 6, although some of the chain's papers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, did not run it.
"We thought it was newsworthy that the British government interpreted their meetings with members of the administration this way and took from it that an attack on Iraq was virtually inevitable," Walcott said. While some in the press "obviously felt this was old news," he said, the question remains "whether the information provided to the American public at the time was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
The Los Angeles Times published a story on the memo May 12, citing "growing indignation among critics of the Bush White House." The Washington Post ran one on May 13, and the Chicago Tribune gave the controversy front-page play four days later.
Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, said she is "a little mystified" at the criticism of the press over the Downing Street memo and a related one written before the Blair meeting.
"I find the memos historically interesting in filling in some of the connective tissue between what was public and what was being discussed privately," she said. "But they still remain Britain's view of the U.S. It's not a smoking gun or anything. And for that reason, I don't think we underplayed it." Miller noted that her newspaper and others were reporting in 2002 "that there was a real likelihood that we would go to war."
Glenn Frankel, The Post's London bureau chief, said he could not initially confirm the memo's authenticity and "didn't really see that there was anything new in it." He said that the paper "should have taken note of it in some form" but that he viewed it as a campaign story and concluded that "its impact here was very limited." Unlike in the United States, Frankel said, "the blogosphere has yet to penetrate the discourse" in official London.
Post ombudsman Michael Getler, saying he was deluged with e-mail prompted by such liberal groups as FAIR and Media Matters for America, wrote that he was "amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up" on the London Times report.
The White House press corps seemed uninterested in the memo for weeks, asking spokesman Scott McClellan only two questions about it out of about 940 queries, according to Salon magazine. That changed on June 7, when Blair visited the White House and Steve Holland of Reuters asked Bush about the memo at a news conference.
USA Today did not mention the memo before the Blair visit. Jim Cox, senior assignment editor for foreign news, told his paper that the staff could not obtain the memo or confirm its authenticity, and was concerned about the "timing" of the leak four days before the British elections.
Some newspaper editors said they were stymied by the Associated Press's lack of coverage of the memo. Deborah Seward, AP's international editor, said in a statement, "There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner."
The network newscasts ignored the memo until the Blair visit, and cable news channels carried only occasional reports or discussions. George Stephanopoulos asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about the memo May 15 on ABC's "This Week," and Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, raised it with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman on "Meet the Press" Sunday.
"This was an issue that was widely debated in the presidential campaign of 2004, whether the intelligence was fixed or embellished," Russert said. "But this was new information to me." Asked about the slow response by NBC and other news outlets, he said, "One thing I've learned is when you see something from the British press, you have to vet it."
Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio's ombudsman, said the story "went under the radar of a lot of media organizations. This seemed like confirmation of what is already known in the United States, but it's still an extraordinary memo."
When he asked NPR executives why they didn't do more, Dvorkin said, "there was a kind of silence."