June 13, 2005 - What can reading USA Today tell us about the Downing Street Memo (DSM) story? Zip. Zilch. Nothing. At least that was the case for the first 38 days after the memo was published in London's Sunday Times. USA Today published not a word about it until June 8, 2005. This week though, the leaked 2002 memo that indicates the Bush Administration had already decided to go to war on Iraq months before it brought the subject before the United Nations finally made it into the nation's national newspapers, including USA Today (page 8; and reprinted at http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0608-01.htm). And it's likely to get another spike in coverage this Thursday when my hero John (that's you, Representative Conyers, not you Senator Kerry) opens a Congressional hearing and presents a letter to the president signed by 500,000 voters demanding answers about the DSM.
Why should progressives care what that lightweight daily, USA Today, has to say about the DSM? With a circulation of over 2.2 million, it reaches twice as many Americans as either of the intelligentsia's papers, the New York Times or Washington Post. It is also the nation's most "national" paper--the one you'll find in mini-marts and hotels from Maine to Mississippi, Wisconsin to Washington. When Middle America reads a national paper, it's typically USA Today. What's most interesting, if not at all surprising, about USA Today's relationship to the DSM, though, is how closely the paper mirrors the Bush/Blair and right-wing "minimize, malign and control" strategy for dealing with the memo.
So far, USA Today has only published the one story on June 8. Salon online magazine, however, did interview its senior assignment editor for foreign news, Jim Cox. And the author of the article, Mark Memmott, was interviewed by Bob Garfield on NPR's On the Media on June 11. A lot can be learned about the strategies that will be used to silence the memo's import in a quick examination of these primary and secondary USA Today sources.
The News Blackout
The Bush Administration successfully stymied almost all mainstream coverage of the issue until Reuter reporter Steve Holland's brave question at the joint Bush-Blair news conference on June 7. They had a lot of help from the White House press corps which, despite 19 daily briefings, asked Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan exactly two questions about the memo between May 1 and USA Today's first mention of it on June 8. But, in an interview with Salon, USA Today's senior editor Jim Cox did express regrets that he hadn't assigned the story earlier. Regrets, though, Mr. Cox, are not the same as news.
The "Suspicious Timing" Argument
At the Bush-Blair news conference, the President stated, "Well you know, I read, kind of, the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race. I'm not sure who they dropped it out is, but I'm not suggesting that you all [indicating assembled White House press corps] dropped it out there." USA Today put it more succinctly, "The Sunday Times' May 1 memo story, which broke just four days before Britain's national elections,." and On the Media interviewer Bob Garfield echoed this emphasis in his introduction, stating the report of the memo "ran in Britain May 1st, four days before the British election." USA Today editor Cox was quoted in his own paper saying that the memo "was disclosed four days before the British elections, raising concerns about the timing."
What the audience was supposed to make of both the President's and the media's statements was that, obviously, London's Sunday Times was trying to skew election results with this suspiciously timed release. Therefore, the memo itself could not be trusted.
The 'Mistaken' Meaning of "Fixed Around"
Perhaps the most quoted phrase of the DSM is the claim Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
Robin Niblett, Director of the Europe program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies-a foreign policy focused Washington think tank, helpfully suggested in the USA Today article "that it would be easy for Americans to misunderstand the reference to intelligence being 'fixed around' Iraq policy. 'Fixed around' in British English means 'bolted on' rather than altered to fit the policy," he informed us. During his interview with Garfield, Memmott repeated this point as justification for his paper's lack of coverage. "Britain and the United States are separated by a common language, I think is the clich*," he said cutely. He then went on to repeat the idea that, "[T]o someone in Britain it's possible that that phrase 'fixed around' could mean attached to or bolted on. Not necessarily skewed." . So that's where the argument comes down to why it's so important to find out what the person who wrote that meant."
British semantic subtlety as explanation has been subsequently latched onto in the right-wing blogosphere and was used as an argument for dismissing the memo by conservative National Review's Rich Lowry, filling in for David Brooks on the Friday weekly wrap-up segment of the Jim Leher News Hour. (Back around the left side of the blogosphere, real Brits wrote in to say that they understood the phrase to mean 'rigged' too--just like on our side of the pond.)
The "Old News" Argument
James S. Robbins at National Review Online described the DSM this way: "...the memo simply contains the impressions of an aide of the impressions of British-cabinet officials of the impressions of unnamed people they spoke to in the United States about what they thought the president was thinking. It is sad when hearsay thrice-removed raises this kind of ruckus, especially since a version had been reported three years ago (my italics). As smoking guns go, it is not high caliber."
The "old news is no news" argument isn't mentioned in the USA Today June 8 story. But when Memmott was asked by Garfield about other reasons for neglecting the story until June 8, he said, "we and other newspapers as well, and other media, had written a lot in early 2002 about how the Bush Administration was beginning the drumbeat, was moving toward the decision to go to war, to take military action in Iraq. It wouldn't happen until a year later. But there were lots of stories. So there was some sense also among editing ranks, well, we knew this. We knew the Bush Administration had decided well beforehand what its policy course was going to be. Yes this was important. Yes this is a document which seems to put it down on paper. But I think there was a sense of, well is this old news and how important is it?" In his interview with Salon, Cox states, "The memo doesn't say something we haven't heard in one way or another over the last two and a half years."
The Authenticity Issue
No one in the British government has denied the authenticity of the document and an unnamed former senior US official is quoted as saying the account of the senior British Intelligence officer's visit to Washington is "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired." But in the wake of Dan Rather's public undoing and the recent Newsweek scandal, the press has become hyper-vigilant in its quest for absolute authenticity before running a story.
Senior USA Today editor Jim Cox said to Salon, "We could not obtain the memo or a copy of it from a reliable source. There was no explicit confirmation of its authenticity from (Blair's office)."
When On the Media's Garfield opened his interview with Mark Memmott, the very first thing he said in response to Garfield's question about a "gaping hole" in coverage of the memo was, "It's ironic to some extent. Last year the media was jumped on because of the Texas Air National Guard documents that CBS said it had. Bloggers were all over them about the authenticity of those. Now some in the blogosphere were all over the media for not writing about documents which almost all the media had not seen. Only the Sunday Times of London had actual copies that they said were from reliable sources. Others only had second hand information so that explains a lot of the reluctance, at least on the U.S. media's part, to really weigh in this on this one, I think. I know there were attempts made to try to authenticate and obtain the information so that we could do a story and we just never got to the point, I'm told, where we could." Later in the interview Garfield picks up on the implication of this view by saying in regards to the DSM, "let's say it's authentic for a moment." before continuing with his questions (et tu, BG?).
I repeat, none of the people who were at this high-level meeting have disputed the document's authenticity.
So let's summarize. The memo describing the minutes of a meeting attended by our major Iraq war ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisors in which it is stated that the Bush Administration saw military action as "inevitable" and that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action" even though "the case was thin" and the United Nations had not yet been consulted was
a) not important enough to mention at all
b) old news
c) merely a ploy by a British newspaper to skew elections over there
d) a bunch of mistaken allegations based on a failure to understand British English
e) based on a document which Tony Blair himself had not specifically said was true (though he hadn't denied it either)
f) All of the above.
This, folks, is the framing of the memo that we're up against, the one being promoted by the Bush Administration and Tony Blair and the one being parroted by much of our fearful mainstream media. This is what most Americans are finding out about the Downing Street Memo (if they're finding out anything at all). Some regional and local papers have picked up on the story but coverage is spotty so far. Under these circumstances, we might be grateful that most Americans don't read any newspaper. They get their news from television. Then again, what's the most watched news on TV? It's Fox News.
Cynthia Bogard ( Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edu ) is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University in New York.