Graduates of the Cheers for Us School of Journalism (Motto: “Cheers for Us and All the Great Stories We Write!”) have been put off their self-congratulatory stroke by the rise of the “Downing Street memo” story on this side of the Atlantic.
If by now you have not heard of the Downing Street memo, I trust that your cave is pleasantly cool during the summer months and the paper is being delivered right to its mouth so that you can read this explanation.
The Downing Street memo was the confidential notes of what British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his aides discussed at a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street on July 23, 2002 – eight months before President Bush took the United States to war against Iraq. It was leaked to the Sunday Times in London and published May 1.
Here’s what it said: “Marge in the cafeteria should be instructed that the PM’s tea was too milky this morning and his crumpet excessively soggy.”
Wait a second, that’s another memo. The Downing Street was merely treated by American newspapers as if it were about tea and crumpets.
What the memo really revealed was that even as the administration was pretending that war was not inevitable, the die was cast for military action to remove Saddam Hussein and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
To be fair – although let us not get carried away here – this wording can be interpreted as having a non-sinister meaning. Nothing in the memo suggests that Bush and Blair did not believe that weapons of mass destruction existed.
But at the very least it raises eyebrows. In the old days in the newspaper business, what raised eyebrows was considered a good way of raising circulation.
So how come nobody jumped on the story immediately? According to theory, right-wing nut theory that is, the liberal media should have been all over this like a cheap suit. It is only now, with a prodding from Democrats in Congress, that the story has become big.
The question of why the media dog didn’t bark in the night is what graduates of the Cheers for Us School of Journalism have been attempting to answer. The main reason put forward seems to be that the memo didn’t reveal anything new – that stories at the time made clear that the president was hell-bent on war and everyone knew this.
Except, of course, that they didn’t know this. Journalists have this vain belief, quite touching in its naivete, that most people actually read and remember what they write.
In fact, most Americans believe we were attacked by Iraqis on 9/11, something they probably did not read in a newspaper but was implied by that nice Mr. Bush.
Another problem is that in this business nobody thinks another paper’s stories are any good. If something big occurs, it is best to pretend that it didn’t happen or, failing that, suggest that the news has been overblown.
The universal motto of newspapers is “All the News That’s Fit to Print (Provided We Weren’t Scooped).” We live in dread of being scooped because then the public might read other people’s stories. And heck, they might even remember them! The unfairness of that thought makes us very insecure.
The Downing Street memo was, of course, first reported in a British paper, which is an added complication standing in the way of its being picked up over here.
It is a brave soul who completely trusts the British press, which has a strong entertainment quotient in its reporting. I, for one, don’t completely trust their reporting, an opinion informed by having worked on a paper in London in my youth.
While I was never entertaining at the expense of the truth – indeed, never entertaining at all, as all the girls told me – I did observe the ways of the British press firsthand. Several papers regularly carry pictures of naked women, which at least gives British male readers an excuse to forget what the stories are about.
To be sure, the Sunday Times is not of this class and its story has not been denied. At the same time, the Downing Street memo story would have had more wallop if it had appeared first in The New York Times, which is what the Almighty reads at breakfast, or so people in the industry believe. (As for me, I believe he reads the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, knowing that those who read its editorials are long-suffering saints.)
The good news is that nothing about the omission of this story appears attributable to politics, thus confounding the wild thoughts of those on the right and left. It was just an old-fashioned screw-up. To that extent, cheers for us!
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)