Mainstream media cover-up: In five weeks following its disclosure, Downing Street memo drew little attention

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN, NICOLE CASTA, JAKE WEIGLER, MAX BERGER & ANDREW SEIFTER

In the five weeks following its disclosure, both newspapers and the broadcast media in the United States largely ignored the Downing Street memo, a secret British intelligence document indicating that British intelligence officials believed the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its case for war in Iraq.

A Media Matters for America search of Nexis databases following the memo's disclosure on May 1 in the British Sunday Times revealed that U.S. newspapers published only 10 articles by their own reporters focused on the substance of the memo prior to a June 7 press conference at which a reporter asked President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about it. In addition, a Knight Ridder story dated May 6 was reprinted or excerpted in several newspapers. Of these reports, only a handful included new information or original reporting. On television, the memo was the subject of only two reports on prime-time cable news programs prior to the press conference; among the three major networks' evening news shows, only NBC's Nightly News had devoted a report solely to the memo as of June 14, and even that occurred after the press conference.

Newspapers slow to respond to Downing Street memo story

In the weeks following the disclosure of the Downing Street memo, U.S. newspapers offered little coverage of its content. Stories that were published included very little, if any, original information about the memo, preferring to restate facts that had been available since the Sunday Times' initial story.

The U.S. press first mentioned the memo in The New York Times on May 2. The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Sun mentioned it in May 3 stories. The Washington Post also included brief mentions in a May 5 article in its Style section and in a news report the following day.

On May 6, Knight Ridder issued an article by reporters Warren Strobel and John Walcott that included a refusal by the White House to comment on the documents and confirmation from a former senior U.S. official that the memo was an "absolute accurate description of what transpired." A Nexis search indicates that Strobel and Walcott's story ran in various forms in 16 papers between May 6 and 9. Following this piece, reporting trailed off, with only eight news reports appearing over the next three weeks. Of these eight, all newspaper coverage ran in inside pages, apart from front-page stories in the Santa Fe New Mexican on May 27 and the Chicago Tribune on May 17, and a Los Angeles Times story on page A3 on May 12. In addition, several commentaries on the memo appeared between May 1 and June 4, though many focused more on the lack of media coverage than on the actual contents of the memo.

News coverage of the memo exploded after Bush and Blair were asked about it during their June 7 joint press conference. Numerous stories reported Bush's and Blair's denials of the memo's central allegations -- that the United States had decided to go to war as early as July 2002 and that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" -- but only one included new reporting about the content of the memo and the events surrounding its creation in July 2002.

Of the papers covering the Downing Street memo following the Sunday Times and the Knight Ridder stories, Media Matters identified only three -- the May 12 Los Angeles Times, the May 13 Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the June 12 Philadelphia Inquirer -- that provided new information concerning the memo's content, authenticity, or events surrounding its creation. Of these, only the Los Angeles Times' story reflected any effort to consult with British sources -- with Michael Smith, the Sunday Times reporter who broke the original story.

Although coverage began to drop toward the end of the week of the press conference, it picked up again following the June 11 release of another set of internal British documents on preparation for war in Iraq. A June 12 Washington Post article highlighted the new memos' revelation that the British had concerns about the lack of U.S. planning for the postwar period. But six weeks since the memo was first reported in the Sunday Times, the U.S. news media have yet to examine key questions raised by the Downing Street memo or the other memos disclosed this week.

As Salon.com's Eric Boehlert reported on June 14, many local and regional papers rely on worldwide wire services, chiefly the Associated Press, for coverage of international events. AP did not issue a story on the memo until June 7 -- more than a month after the initial item in the Sunday Times. Deborah Seward, AP's international editor, told Salon, "Yes, there is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner."

Newspaper coverage of Downing Street memo

Date

Type

Reporting on substance of memo (excluding wire reports)

Reporting on lack of coverage, not memo content

Reprinted versions of existing stories (including wire reports)

Commentary on content of memo

Commentary dealing with media coverage of memo content

5/1-5/7

Mention:
Focus:

5

2
13

1

5/8-5/14

Mention:
Focus:

1
2

1

2
1

3
1

3

5/15-5/21

Mention:
Focus:

1
3

7
3

1
7

5/22-5/28

Mention:
Focus:

2

2
4

6
3

5/29-6/4

Mention:
Focus:

1

10
1

2
2

6/5-6/11

Mention:
Focus:

8
5

2

12
18

12
5

3
4

6/12-6/14

Mention:
Focus:

4
2

1

2
1

3
3

2
4

The search results are based on two Nexis database searches in "US Newspapers and Wires" from May 1 through June 14. These searches covered more than 300 U.S. newspapers:

(downing and memo) or (british and memo) or (dearlove and memo) or (rycroft and memo)

(((fix! or manipulat!) w/10 (policy or intelligence or facts)) and iraq and bush) or (downing w/2 (st or street)) or (rycroft or dearlove)

The column titled "Reprinted versions of existing stories" includes all reprints of wire reports and reports from other newspapers. It includes only wire reports published in newspapers, not the original report published by the wire service itself.

"Commentary" includes editorials, op-eds, and columns. It does not include syndicated columns or letters to the editor.

Television coverage also lacking

Coverage of the Downing Street memo on prime-time network and cable news programs has been even more limited. No channel aired a prime-time report on the memo until more than two weeks after its May 1 publication. Besides the initial mention of the memo by Fox News host Alan Colmes on the May 11 edition of Hannity & Colmes, initial reports on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports and MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann on May 16, and a panel discussion on the June 6 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, the memo did not receive significant prime-time coverage until after Bush and Blair were asked about it at a June 7 press conference.

Of the three major network evening news programs, only NBC's Nightly News had devoted a full report to the topic through June 14; it also aired a report partially focused on the memo on June 14, which detailed the other recently released British memos about British fears of inadequate postwar planning. CBS' Evening News aired a report on the Bush-Blair press conference on June 7 that mentioned the memo alongside other issues such as aid to Africa and global warming.

On the prime-time cable news programs, as of June 14, CNN had aired a total of three full reports on the memo and MSNBC had featured two such reports. The June 6 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume featured a panel discussion on the memo, and Fox News White House correspondent Wendell Goler and chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron mentioned the memo in reports that broadly covered the Bush-Blair press conference on June 7. But Fox News has yet to devote a full news report to the subject in prime time.

In late May, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and other House Judiciary Committee Democrats released an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) on the media's coverage of key news stories on 13 cable news programs on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel in the three days after each story broke. The study was completed in conjunction with a forum on media bias hosted by committee Democrats. Among the key news stories analyzed in the study was the disclosure of the Downing Street memo. As with this new analysis by Media Matters, the CRS study found that no prime-time cable show mentioned the memo in the days immediately following its disclosure in the Sunday Times.

Network and cable news prime-time coverage of Downing Street memo

ABC

CBS

NBC

CNN

MSNBC

Fox News

5/1-5/7

5/8-5/14

Hannity & Colmes (passing mention, 5/11)

5/15-5/21

Wolf Blitzer Reports (full report, 5/16)

Countdown with Keith Olbermann (full report, 5/16)

Hannity & Colmes (passing mention, 5/16)

5/22-5/28

Hardball with Chris Matthews (passing mention, 5/25)

The O'Reilly Factor (passing mention, 5/23)

5/29-6/6

Special Report with Brit Hume (panel discussion, 6/6)

June 7: Bush-Blair Press Conference

6/7-6/11

CBS Evening News (partial report, 6/7)

Nightly News (full report, 6/7)

Lou Dobbs Tonight (partial report, 6/7); NewsNight with Aaron Brown (full report, 6/7); NewsNight (full report, 6/8)

Countdown (passing mention, 6/6); Countdown (full report, 6/7); Hardball (partial discussion, 6/7); Hardball (passing mention, 6/9)

Special Report (partial report, 6/7); The Big Story with John Gibson (partial report, 6/7)

6/12-6/14

Nightly News (partial report, 6/14)

Countdown (partial report, 6/14); Hardball (passing mention, 6/14)

The search results are based on two Nexis database searches in "Transcripts" from May 1 through June 14:

(downing and memo) or (british and memo) or (dearlove and memo) or (rycroft and memo)

(((fix! or manipulat!) w/10 (policy or intelligence or facts)) and iraq and bush) or (downing w/2 (st or street)) or (rycroft or dearlove)

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
Downing Street Memo
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