The Downing Street Memos and the Revenge of the Bloggers
When Michael Smith of the London Times wrote about a further leaked British cabinet document on decision-making about the Iraq war in July 2003, he did not simply report the revelations in the document.
Most commentators on the Smith story have missed his open acknowledgment of the role of the blogging world in turning the Downing Street Memo and other leaked British documents from a provincial Whitehall story into a world (and American) phenomenon. Smith writes,
“The briefing paper is certain to add to the pressure, particularly on the American president, because of the damaging revelation that Bush and Blair agreed on regime change in April 2002 and then looked for a way to justify it.
There has been a growing storm of protest in America, created by last month’s publication of the minutes in The Sunday Times. A host of citizens, including many internet bloggers, have demanded to know why the Downing Street memo (often shortened to “the DSM” on websites) has been largely ignored by the US mainstream media.” [Emphasis added.]
If this story had broken in the 1970s, it probably would just have been buried by the mainstream US press and remained an oddity of UK’s Fleet Street. But here you have the Times of London actually acknowledging the wind under its sails from the blogging world!
“Frustrated at the refusal by the White House to respond to their letter, the congressmen [led by John Conyers] have set up a website — www.downingstreetmemo.com — to collect signatures on a petition demanding the same answers.
Conyers promised to deliver it to Bush once it reached 250,000 signatures. By Friday morning it already had more than 500,000 with as many as 1m expected to have been obtained when he delivers it to the White House on Thursday.
AfterDowningStreet.org, another website set up as a result of the memo, is calling for a congressional committee to consider whether Bush’s actions as depicted in the memo constitute grounds for impeachment.
So Smith not only acknowledges the pressure put on the US corporate media by the bloggers, but he also points to a virtual social movement around the DSM, with emails and petitions circulating in the hundreds of thousands and giving the Democrats in Congress their first high-profile investigatory opportunity of the Bush presidency.
The seeping of blogistan into the pages of the Times of London with regard to its own scoops seems to me a bellwether of the kinds of changes that are being produced in our information environment by the blogging phenomenon. The gatekeepers at the New York Times and the Washington Post can no longer decide whether a leak is a story or a non-story. The public decides what a story is.
The magnitude of the change is clear in the coverage at the Washington Post. The post, like the New York Times, Newsday, and others, ignored the original Downing Street Memo, published in the London Times on May 1.
The first Washington Post story on the Downing Street Memo was not published until May 13, nearly two weeks after the leak. Walter Pincus, despite doing an excellent job in explaining the significance of the Memo, was however relegated by the editors to page 18.
Admittedly, the leaked memo did pose problems for the mainstream media. In order to protect its source, the Times of London had not made available a facsimile of the original, but just retyped it and put it up in HTML. After the trouble Dan Rather got into last summer over the document purportedly about Bush’s service record, any news editor would be nervous about jumping on the DSM bandwagon. Wikipedia notes, “On June 8, 2005, USA Today printed an article by their senior assignment editor for foreign news, Jim Cox, saying with respect to the memo, “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). And it was disclosed four days before the British elections, raising concerns about the timing.” Bloggers made fun of Cox for “not knowing where to find the memo,” but they don’t have to worry about this issue as much, since they mostly aren’t professional journalists. If the memo turned out to be a fake, they could just say “ooops,” what did I know? As a professional historian, I had more at stake. But I felt that the wording of the leaked memo, its details, and its fit with what else we knew, were sufficient to authenticate it.
Further, professional journalists have a credo that they don’t just poach on other people’s scoops. You would want to develop your own sources and have something to add to the story before doing a front-pager on it. I would argue that this credo is counter-productive and easily dealt with. You could kick it to the op-ed page and do commentary. (This is how the bloggers handled it, and the indispensable Paul Krugman weighed in on May 16 this way for the New York Times.) Or you could do a story about the reaction to the leak in the UK, which would give you your own hook. I personally think that editors who don’t want to cover a story use their lack of original leads as an excuse to sit on it.
The cabinet briefing paper leaked on Sunday is instructive. This time a companion piece was written by Walter Pincus for the Washington Post, and it received front-page treatment.
“That memo and other internal British government documents were originally obtained by Michael Smith, who writes for the London Sunday Times. Excerpts were made available to The Washington Post, and the material was confirmed as authentic by British sources who sought anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter.”
This passage is worded in such a way as to suggest that Smith himself made the documents and some British contacts available to Pincus. If so, it was both remarkably generous and also very smart of him. He solved some of the main problems that the US press had had in covering the story, at least with regard to the Post, and ensured that it reverberated on this side of the pond. I don’t mean to take anything away from the prowess of Pincus, a first-rate reporter, who may well have in the meantime developed his own sources in London. I’m just going by the diction, which admits that Smith first obtained the new briefing paper and then goes into the passive mood, saying that excerpts “were made available” to the Post.
The positioning of Pincus’s article is clearly in part a result of the enormous pressure the bloggers and the public have put on the Post on this issue. Indeed, it is probably the case that having “ombudsmen” at the papers of record, who discuss and explain editorial decisions, is itself a response to the interactivity of contemporary culture, exemplified by the internet.
Linguist Jean-Philippe Marcotte at Stanford, in an email to me today, contrasts the Pincus article to the treatment given the new revelations at the New York Times:
You may by now have seen the NYT’s deeply buried take on the new DSM, written by David Sanger, “Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn’t Made”, which turns on a tendentious reading of the phrase “no political decisions”. In the context of the memo, it seems clear that these decisions concern the strategy by which the conditions or framework for military action [are created]; but Sanger interprets it to mean what the article title says, and misses completely the bit about using the UN process to justify, not avoid, the war. The tone is strikingly defensive, effectively claiming that the Times reported on this memo two weeks before it was even written.
The contrast with the London Sunday Times reading, and yours, is stark. At least when the Washington Post missed the point they put their story on the front page…
Think Progress, a progressive Web site, surveys the whole batch of leaked British cabinet documents on war decision-making, and concludes that they demonstrate a full knowledge on the part of the Blair government of the flimsiness of the pretexts being put forward for going to war against Iraq. Like Marcotte, they think that the Washington Post missed this aspect of the story.
The bloggers have forced the issue into the corporate media, and are helping create a real buzz around the Conyers hearings scheduled for Thursday.
Conyers and his staff are well aware that ordinarily hearings held by members of the minority party in Congress (which therefore are unlikely to have teeth) are routinely ignored by the corporate media. They are placing their hopes in the blogging world to cover the hearings and get the word out. They are planning to release further documents corroborating the Downing Street Memo.
This entire affair could be a harbinger of what is coming in 2007. If the Democrats can take back the Senate in 2006, all of a sudden they could schedule real investigatory hearings at the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, into Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, into Cheney’s pressure on the CIA analysts, into the fabrication of intelligence and the political lies that dragged this country into the Iraq quagmire. Imagine what the Republicans did to Bill Clinton for merely fibbing about a desultory relationship (13 meetings) with a young woman that did not even involve intercourse. What would be the appropriate punishment for lying about Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons program? Or launching a war of aggression in contravention of the United Nations Charter? Bush knows very well he will be a lame duck by January 2007. The real question is whether he will end up being roasted duck.
Certainly, the end of the story will depend far less on the contemporary equivalents of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, who gave Woodward and Bernstein their heads in uncovering the Watergate scandal, than would have otherwise been the case. Such members of the press and editorial elite used to get to decide whether to bury a scandal or pursue it. Now, that power has been democratized by the world wide web. Bloggers will help to decide the end of the story.