Friday, June 10, 2005

THERE ARE TWO separate stories about the Downing Street minutes. One is the story about the minutes themselves: the written record -- top secret until leaked to the British press on the eve of the elections there -- of a July, 2002, meeting between Tony Blair and his top national security officials, in which Richard Dearlove, the director of British intelligence, just back from a meeting with Pres. Bush, conveyed his impression that Bush had made a firm decision to invade Iraq, and planned to justify that decision with intelligence chosen to support the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was providing support to terrorists.

The other story about the Downing Street minutes is the one about the way the U.S. press covered the story --virtually not at all. The existence and contents of the minutes were revealed by the London Times on May 1; and have been widely covered in Europe and elsewhere since then. But in the United States, neither the print nor the broadcast media did more than perfunctorily mention the minutes for over a month after the story broke.

This second story is the one that Eric Boehlert writes about in the current edition of Salon.

The fact that it took five weeks for more than a handful of Washington reporters to focus on the memo highlights a striking disconnect between some news consumers and mainstream news producers. The memo story epitomizes a mainstream press corps that is genuinely afraid to ask tough questions and write tough stories about the Bush administration. Worse, in the case of the Downing Street memo, it simply refuses to report on the existence of a plainly newsworthy document.

"This is where all the work conservatives and the administration have done in terms of bullying the press, making it less willing to write confrontational pieces -- this is where it's paid off," says David Brock, CEO of Media Matters for America, a liberal media advocacy group. "It's a glaring example of omission."
That more reporters, editors and producers didn't grasp the obvious significance of the memo remains baffling. As Mark Danner spelled out in the June 9 issue of the New York Review of Books, the memo helps establish five key facts in understanding how the still-deadly war in Iraq unfolded:

"1. By mid-July 2002, eight months before the war began, President Bush had decided to invade and occupy Iraq.

"2. Bush had decided to 'justify' the war 'by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.'

"3. Already, 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.'

"4. Many at the top of the [U.S.] administration did not want to seek approval from the United Nations (going 'the U.N. route').

"5. Few in Washington seemed much interested in the aftermath of the war."

Yet despite the news peg, the mainstream media demonstrated a breathtaking lack of interest. According to TVEyes, an around-the-clock monitoring service, between May 1 and June 6 the story received approximately 20 mentions on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS combined. (With Blair's arrival in Washington Tuesday, there was a slight spike in mentions but still very little reporting of substance.) By contrast, during the same five-week period, the same outlets found time to mention 263 times the tabloid controversy that erupted when a photograph showing Saddam Hussein in his underwear was leaked to the British press.

Since the Times of London published the memo on May 1, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has held 19 daily briefings, at which he has fielded approximately 940 questions from reporters, according to the White House's online archives. Exactly two of those questions have been about the Downing Street memo and the White House's reported effort to fix prewar intelligence. (Three weeks after the memo was leaked in Britain, McClellan prefaced a response to a question about it by telling White House reporters he was not familiar with "the specific memo.")

The Salon piece demonstrates how censorship works in the United States: not by jailing reporters, or persecuting or torturing them; but by creating a framework in which the press can censor itself. This is the genius of the symbiotic relationship between the mainstream media and the web of corporate and government interests of which it is part. Although the Bush administration didn't invent this truth-squelching machine, it has surely increased the efficiency with which it operates. By hammering on again and again about disloyalty, lack of patriotism, irresponsible journalism, and even treason whenever someone in the media publishes a story that reveals the man behind the curtain, the White House has turned the Fourth Estate into a supine and reactive echo of government interests. Very effective technique, that.

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