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June 19, 2005

The Downing Street Memo and the Court of Appeal in News Judgment

News judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren't news. But if you weren't news how would anyone know enough about you to contest the ruling? Today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.

About the Downing Street Memo—which I think deserves sustained news attention, real Congressional hearings, questions and answers at White House briefings, continued blogging, serious examination by all Americans (including the President’s supporters) and the interest of future historians, essentially for the reasons articulated here—I have one thought to contribute.

“News stories,” Joshua Marshall once said, “have a 24 hour audition on the news stage, and if they don’t catch fire in that 24 hours, there’s no second chance.” His observation appears in the Harvard Kennedy School case study on the fall of Trent Lott (published in March 2004, a pdf.)

But that’s not the way world works anymore. The 24-hour audition still happens, and the big winners are still big news. But now there is a Court of Appeal in the State of Supreme News Judgment, and everyone knows the initial verdict can be reversed. Reversal on appeal came last week for the Downing Street Memo (now memos, plural) about 45 days after the first story broke.

We should use the opportunity to understand how the court works. (Others cases include the fate of Trent Lott, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) For if the news judgment of journalists is not final anymore, this only reminds us that it was never good enough to be as final as once it was.

The traditional press is “no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled,” I wrote in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15). “Not sovereign doesn’t mean you go away. It means your influence isn’t singular anymore.” The Court of Appeal for news judgment, which sits on the left sometimes, and other times on the right, is an example of that.

What journalists call news judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren’t news. But if you weren’t news how would anyone know enough about you (or care) to contest the ruling? That’s what having singular influence was all about. The way it works today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.

Now if there’s something newsworthy coming out of the U.K. but neglected in America the political blogs in America and other activists online keep talking about it. Quickly the story’s unjust obscurity will reach a political player who can change that by acting in a newsworthy way, lending fresh facts and additional reason to cover the story.

By such means the appeal of news judgment starts to take shape. This happened within a week when Conyers began circulating a letter to President Bush—signed by 88 Democrats—that demanded from Bush an explanation. The Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, increasingly a dissident voice on these matters, treated that letter as news in a May 6 report. (The signers were up to 122 by the time Conyers sent his letter.)

Players in politics, reading the blogs (or in the case of Conyers, writing for them), pick up the chatter and amplify it. Radio talk show hosts, also reading the blogs, and getting the e-mails from activists, amplify the chatter some more. Columnists who weren’t a part of the consensus pay attention, seeking vindication for their own judgment. And all these players together mount the appeal. They go into Supreme News Court and say: “the press denied us, but we have a case.”

On June 7, for example, Jefferson Morley of the Washington Post (who wrote about the memo May 3 for the Washington Post, but only in the online edition) pointed out that “the so-called Downing Street Memo remains among the top 10 most viewed articles on The Times of London site.” All those clicks are part of the appeals process. Web users are speaking. “Reader interest” (one factor in news judgment) is being shown. So too with calls and e-mails to ombudsmen at newspapers. These helped trigger Barney Calame’s report about the New York Times’s coverage, and two Michael Getler columns about the Washington Post’s decisions.

At the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, reader representative Kate Parry forwarded a reader’s e-mail to nation & world editor Dennis McGrath. She asked him if he knew anything about the story. Parry describes what happened:

McGrath knew about the memo — but not from the traditional news wires. In this country, wire services had provided only a brief mention of it May 2 deep in a New York Times advancer on the British election. McGrath knew about it because he had started getting the e-mails, too.

He and his wire editors began watching for a wire story. A week later, they were still watching.

“We were frustrated the wires weren’t providing stories on this,” McGrath said. Finally, he gave up waiting for the wires and assigned reporter Sharon Schmickle to write about it — despite the geographic disadvantage of reporting from Minneapolis on a story breaking in London.

Parry added that the Downing Street memo story had “played out almost identically to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story last year. McGrath learned about the group and its ads from the Internet long before the wire services offered stories. He had a local reporter do that story as well.” That’s the Court of Appeal in session.

In any successful appeal, when the press digs in and ignores the story, this creates a second story, the subject of which is faulty news judgment. It’s usually phrased as a question: Did the (news) judges rule in error? (Christian Science Monitor, May 17: “Why has ‘Downing Street memo’ story been a ‘dud’ in US?”) Howard Kurtz finally made the case Thursday. The question, What about the Downing Street memo? had been asked so often, he wrote, it “forced the mainstream media to take a second look.”

NPR’s ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin told Salon, “It’s a bigger story than we’ve given it. It deserves more attention.” He added, “It may have been blog-induced in the beginning, but now it has legs of its own.”

When the second look was taken, some key editors judged themselves at fault. USA Today’s senior assignment editor for foreign news, Jim Cox said not reporting on the memo was a mistake. “I wish we’d had something in early on, and I wish we’d been able to move the memo story forward. I feel like we missed an opportunity, and that’s my fault,” he said to Salon’s Eric Boehlert. Deborah Seward, AP’s international editor, issued a statement, “There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner.” (See this weekend’s AP story.)

That’s called winning on appeal.

Mark Danner writes in the June 9 New York Review of Books that the ultimate importance of the leaked memo “has to do with a certain attitude about facts,” namely that they can be “fixed around the policy,” as the document states. He points out that this is “an argument about power, and its influence on truth.”

Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept—a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe.

I don’t think the press has learned how to deal yet with “power shapes truth,” or the extreme contempt for reason-giving the Bush Administration has shown on matters of war and peace. For example, in judging whether a story deserves further play the press will ask, “were the facts in it previously reported?” (a news test) rather than asking: having the facts in it been successfully denied at the top? (which is a power-shapes-truth question.) Ultimately this confusion helps explain the original judgment that the memo was not news, and the success of the appeal.

Post-script, June 20. With “I don’t get it” irritation, someone asked in comments: Why are you making such a big deal of the Downing Street Memos, which are “old” and second-hand news?

Here’s one reply. A representative democracy requires an elected commander-in-chief not only to have reasons, but to give reasons, publicly, for what he chooses to do. This is all the more vital post-1945, where we Americans make war without officially declaring it in order to give the President a freer hand, suspending our own Constitution in the bargain.

With this war, the reason-giving part of the operation totally failed. But that isn’t, as Jeff Jarvis says, “a scandal of bad PR.” No. If you think reason-giving is PR you have already lost the battle for public choice in politics. It is a basic failure of national legitimacy to have your reason-giving go so awry as it did with this war. If you are a Bush supporter, my view is you should be doubly concerned because, as things stand, actions in Iraq you believe fully legitimate have seen their official rationale (that is, their reason-giving) fail.

I don’t agree with those who say that because no weapons were found, the war lacks all logic or legitimacy. It might have an alternative logic, a broader and more expansive rationale than: Saddam has weapons, he must be stopped. The broader case has been made, after the fact. Jarvis lists it, point-by-point, in his post. But that isn’t what people voted for, or Congress “voted” on. Something went seriously awry in the reason-giving. (Dan Gillmor: “What Jeff fails to note is that Congress would never have backed the war so fecklessly had the phony WMD issue been off the table.”)

Just as some of you don’t “believe” the big deal some of us are making about the Downing Street Memos, I don’t believe your small deal making about the Memo’s story of reason-giving and war. Doesn’t ring true to me.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Here’s another reply to why are the memos news? Tom Englehardt at “If Post editorialists and Times journalists can’t tell the difference between scattered, generally anonymously sourced, pre-war reports that told us of early Bush administration preparations for war and actual documents on the same subject emerging from the highest reaches of the British government, from the highest intelligence figure in that government who had just met with some of the highest figures in the U.S. government, and was immediately reporting back to what, in essence, was a ‘war cabinet’ — well, what can you say?”

And see Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books at Englehardt’s site, explaining how the category “truths successfully denied” operates:

A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain “nothing new.”

Set aside some time, get a glass of wine, and absorb Terry Teachout’s very absorbing and learned essay, Culture in the Age of Blogging, parts of which run parallel to ideas in this post and other posts in the archives. It begins: Two years ago next month, I started a blog—that is, a “web log,” a website on which I keep a public journal, written in collaboration with the Chicago-based literary critic Laura Demanski (who is known on the blog as “Our Girl in Chicago.”) Here is a main theme:

One thing of which I am sure is that the common culture of my youth is gone for good. It was hollowed out by the rise of ethnic “identity politics,” then splintered beyond hope of repair by the emergence of the web-based technologies that so maximized and facilitated cultural choice as to make the broad-based offerings of the old mass media look bland and unchallenging by comparison.

Teachout’s blog is About Last Night.

Michael Smith of the Times of London, who broke the original story, continues his reporting: British bombing raids were illegal, says Foreign Office: “A sharp increase in British and American bombing raids on Iraq in the run-up to war ‘to put pressure on the regime’ was illegal under international law, according to leaked Foreign Office legal advice.”

See also his online chat with Washington Post readers (June 16) where Smith gives his view of reaction in the U.S. press:

Firstly, I think the leaks were regarded as politically motivated. Secondly there was a feeling of well we said that way back when. Then of course as the pressure mounted from the outside, there was a defensive attitude. “We have said this before, if you the reader didn’t listen well what can we do”, seemed to be the attitude.

I was on the radio with Michael Smith of the Times of London this week. We joined in Christopher Lydon’s venture in blog-aware public radio, called Open Source. Also a guest was Bob Fesmire of You can listen here.

Michael Smith’s op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times: “The way in which the intelligence was “fixed” to justify war is old news. The real news is the shady April 2002 deal to go to war, the cynical use of the U.N. to provide an excuse, and the secret, illegal air war without the backing of Congress.”

Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog responds to this post: “A quelling of the insurgency, a successful truce with Sunni leadership or some other triumph and the Downing Street Memos will be, if not forgotten, at least relegated to a more fitting place in the public discourse.”

See Captain’s Quarters for the Right’s attempt to suggest the memos are fake because, according to Smith, they were re-typed from the originals to protect the leaker. Kevin Drum calls this “desperate.” I would have to concur. It’s pretty thin reasoning to say: because they were re-typed they must be fake. And to proclaim it with such confidence!

I am a little surprised that otherwise intelligent people would go for “re-typed therefore fake.” You would think after this embarrassment for Powerline…

We have written extensively about the fake “talking points memo” on the Schaivo case that ABC News and the Washington Post publicized, beginning on March 18. We have pointed out, most comprehensively in the Weekly Standard, that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the memo originated with the Republicans, and considerable reason to think it may be a Democratic dirty trick.

…where the “fake” memo turned out to be real and written by a Republican that a little caution would prevail. But the Dan Rather case has bred over-confidence on the Right, and this is another example of it. Now see John Hinderaker of Powerline on the Downing Street Memos: “I very much doubt that the documents are fakes.”

The “Downing Street memos” are much different from the CBS National Guard documents in this important respect: the CBS documents were ostensibly authored by Jerry Killian, who had been dead for twenty years. The Downing Street documents, on the other hand, were allegedly authored by, and relate to meetings recently conducted by, a group of men who are very much alive and well. I can’t conceive of a reason why they would fail to attack the documents’ genuineness if there were a basis for doing so.

Exactly. But ideology sometimes turns people’s minds to mush. Jonah Golderg of National Review separates himself from the mush: “I would also say that if I had to bet, I’d bet Drum is right and the memos are real.”

A key point made by Slate’s Fred Kaplan: the memos show that the Bush and Blair teams thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq: “the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims.” I agree the memos show that. It was this strong belief that led to the distortion of intelligence and the fixing of facts around a pre-determined policy.

The New York Times reporting on the unofficial hearing oganized by Rep. John Conyers (June 17):

Asked about Mr. Conyers’s letter and the British memo, Scott McClellan, the president’s chief spokesman, described the congressman as “an individual who voted against the war in the first place and is simply trying to rehash old debates that have already been addressed.”

“And our focus is not on the past,” Mr. McClellan said. “It’s on the future and working to make sure we succeed in Iraq.”

Dan Froomkin at White House Briefing has the full exchange, a miniature classic in non-communication. McClellan wasn’t just asked about the letter and memo. He was asked if there was going to be any reply at all, even a courtesy or form letter, to Conyers and the 88 (at the time) signers, all of them members of the United States Congress.

In the Washington Post (June 17) Dana Milbank ridicules the Conyers event: “In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe.” Here is the letter Conyers sent in reply, and a Michael Getler ombudsman column about it (June 19). It includes this e-mail from Milbank to Getler about his use of the term “wing nut” to refer to some of the meeting’s enthusiasts:

While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as ‘wingnuts’ a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech.

The Washington Post editorial page: “The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations.”

Paul McLeary in CJR Daily May 20: “If a nervous and uncertain runaway-bride who comes home can generate wall-to-wall coverage, laden with excruciating detail of that hapless soul’s forlorn 3,000-mile round trip, then surely a found document that cuts to the heart of just how two mighty nations find themselves mired in a two-year-old bloody guerilla war on the dusty plains and in the crowded cities of Iraq deserves more play than it has gotten to date.”

This post ran as one of the featured ones at The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington then wrote her own commentary on it, in which she compared television news coverage thusly. Natalee Holloway is the missing-in-Aruba teenager:

ABC News: Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 42 segments; Michael Jackson: 121 segments.
CBS News: Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 70 segments; Michael Jackson: 235 segments.
NBC News: Downing Street Memo: 6 segments; Natalee Holloway: 62 segments; Michael Jackson: 109 segments.
CNN: Downing Street Memo: 30 segments; Natalee Holloway: 294 segments; Michael Jackson: 633 segments.
Fox News: Downing Street Memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 148 segments; Michael Jackson: 286 segments.
MSNBC: Downing Street Memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 30 segments; Michael Jackson: 106 segments.

Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian magazine lists his top political blogs— left, right, libertarian and non-partisan.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 19, 2005 11:43 AM