While editors nationwide call for increased scrutiny of Downing Street Memo, biggest editorial pages remain silent

Since the publication of the Downing Street Memo, a secret British intelligence memo suggesting that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its case for war in Iraq, the editorial pages of four of the five largest U.S. newspapers -- USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times -- have remained conspicuously silent about the controversy surrounding the document.

But a Media Matters for America survey of U.S. newspaper coverage from May 1 to June 15 shows that of the 20 editorial pages across the country that addressed the memo, from large-circulation papers such as The Dallas Morning News to smaller papers such as the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, 18 emphasized the importance of the document, many calling for further investigation into the explosive questions it raises. The dissenters were editorials in The Denver Post and The Washington Post, both of which claimed that the memo merely reinforces what was already known from other sources and argued that U.S. attention is best focused on how to win the war in Iraq.

Further, of 12 editorial page editors nationwide who addressed the memo in op-eds, eight asserted the importance of the memo and four took the position that it contains nothing significant or new, though three of those were nonetheless critical of the Bush administration, in some cases, harshly so. In addition, five of the six reader representatives or ombudsmen who addressed coverage of the memo argued the story warrants more coverage than it has received in their own papers or the media at large.

Following are newspapers that ran editorials referencing the Downing Street Memo:

Editorials emphasizing the importance of the memo:
Charleston Gazette (West Virginia) -- 5/5/05
The Salt Lake Tribune -- 5/16/05
Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, New Jersey) -- 5/17/05
The Palm Beach Post (Florida) -- 5/19/05 and 6/8/05
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- 5/20/05
Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee) -- 5/25/05
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia) -- 5/25/05
Seattle Post-Intelligencer -- 6/1/05
Asheville Citizen-Times (North Carolina) -- 6/1/05
Berkshire Eagle (Massachusetts) -- 6/2/05
Bergen Record (New Jersey) -- 6/7/05
Minneapolis Star Tribune -- 6/9/05 and 6/15/05
The Dallas Morning News -- 6/9/05
Houston Chronicle -- 6/9/05
San Francisco Chronicle -- 6/10/05
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- 6/10/05
Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) -- 6/11/05
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin) -- 6/13/05

Editorials downplaying or dismissing the memo:
The Denver Post - 5/24/05
The Washington Post - 6/15/05

Following are newspapers that ran op-ed pieces by editorial page editors referencing the Downing Street Memo:

Op-eds emphasizing the importance of the memo:
Tuscon Citizen (Arizona), Billie Stanton - 5/17/05
The Oregonian, David Sarasohn - 5/18/05
Rock Hill Herald (South Carolina), James Werrell - 5/20/05
Cleveland Plain Dealer, Elizabeth Sullivan - 5/26/05
Raleigh News & Observer (North Carolina), Steve Ford - 6/5/05
Philadelphia Daily News, Carol Towarnicky - 6/8/05
St. Petersburg Times (Florida), Philip Gailey - 6/12/05
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Steve Berg -- 6/15/05

Op-eds downplaying or dismissing the memo:
Ventura County Star (California), Richard Larsen - 5/17/05
Bangor Daily News (Maine), Todd Benoit - 6/4/05
Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley - 6/12/05
Philadelphia Inquirer, Chris Satullo - 6/12/05

Following are newspapers whose ombudsmen or reader representatives responded to the issue of the Downing Street Memo:

Reader representatives critical of the coverage of the memo by their own paper or the media at large:
The Washington Post, Michael Getler - 5/15/05
The Palm Beach Post, C.B. Hanif - 5/22/05
San Diego Union-Tribune, Gina Lubrano - 5/23/05
Orlando Sentinel (Florida), Manning Pynn - 6/12/05
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kate Parry -- 6/12/05

Reader representatives defending their newspaper's coverage of the memo:
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Angela Tuck - 5/21/05

Following is a sampling of quotes from the editorials and opinion articles listed above that argued in favor of the memo's importance:

  • In the interest of the nation and the administration, the source and content of the Downing Street Memo need to be fully explained. [“Memorandum of Intent,” Houston Chronicle, 6/9/05]
  • At a White House photo op on Tuesday, Bush continued to maintain that war was his “last option.” But a more detailed response to the questions raised by the memo is needed. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and 88 other House Democrats have asked Bush to answer five questions relating to the Downing Street memo. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, says there is “no need” to reply to that letter. We think there is great need. [“Bush & Blair; Iraq denials raise questions,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/9/05]
  • Even if you consider this memo a “smoking gun,” does it still matter after so much other gun smoke? The Bush administration has been busily changing the war's justification from imminent danger to the spread of freedom, and declaring, with weight-of-the-world solemnity, that what matters now isn't the past but the future. But the details of how we got there will be an issue as long as decisions are being made by the same people, still pronouncing their strategies and certainties -- still blowing smoke at us. [“Smoking Gun Still Sends Smoke Signals,” David Sarasohn, The Oregonian, 5/18/05]
  • Some will ask: What's the point of bringing up the Downing Street memo now, two years after the invasion and at a time when terrorist suicide bombers are making life hell not only for U.S. troops but the Iraqi people? The point is this: President Bush didn't level with the American people before going to war. And he still hasn't. [“The American People Have Been Had,” Philip Gailey, St. Petersburg Times, 6/12/05]
  • [The Downing Street Memo story] underscored why readers' questioning of reporting about Iraq hasn't abated, and shouldn't. ... “The Post should be commended,” wrote Jody Young of Wellington, “for its editorial regarding subterfuge and concealment of the truth by the Bush administration. But the editorial board could have hit one over the fence had it referenced the recently uncovered 2002 memos concerning the planning for the Iraq War as reported by the Times of London, Knight-Ridder, Salon, numerous respected weblogs and others.” ... One need not agree with Mr. Young's assessment to recognize that the memo was newsworthy. [“Paper Underplayed Iraq Memo,” C.B. Hanif, The Palm Beach Post, 5/22/05]
  • The American press has failed to call adequate attention to the document, which, although British in origin, describes the United States government's plans for a war that continues to cost dollars and lives. [“A Missing Story?” Manning Pynn, Orlando Sentinel, 6/12/05]

Following is a sampling of quotes from the editorials and opinion articles listed above that dismissed or downplayed the memo:

  • The American media has been castigated for not giving more prominence to the British memo, but it reinforces what we already know from other sources. Former U.S. security adviser Richard Clarke has said Bush came into office in 2001 obsessed with Iraq. U.S. inspectors never found weapons of mass destruction. Last summer, a panel that investigated U.S. intelligence failures attributed the mistakes to groupthink and adherence to unproven assumptions. Attention now is best focused on how to win the war and leave Iraq to a democratic future. [“U.K. memo weakens credibility,” The Denver Post, 5/24/05]
  • But even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is “now seen as inevitable” by “Washington.” That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if “Washington” meant administration decision-makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, [the head of British foreign intelligence] was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out. [“The Left Gets a Memo,” Michael Kinsley, Los Angeles Times, 6/12/05]
  • [T]he discovery of the memo is like finding out that the glove fit O.J. Simpson after all -- interesting in a historical sense but proving nothing new. George Bush was disingenuous about the impetus for the war in Iraq, his consideration of alternatives to war and the cost of the war. This was all understood before November 2004. [“For better or worse, a cooling of political romances,” Todd Benoit, Bangor Daily News, 6/4/05]
  • George W. Bush's punishment should have been for voters to fire him last year. Didn't happen. The Downing Street memo, interesting as it is, can't change that. [“Why the 'Downing Street memo' hasn't rocked Bush's world,” Chris Satullo, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/12/05]
  • Deputy Managing Editor Susan Stevenson believes, as I do, that our coverage was appropriate. Americans learned about Bush's faulty intelligence during U.S. elections. How you view this depends on your politics. [“Coverage of British war documents hits hot button,” Angela Tuck, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/21/05]