An excerpt from
When the Press Fails
Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina
W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston
Press Politics in America
The Case of the Iraq War
We now know that officials in the Bush administration built a case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq that was open to serious challenge. We also know that evidence disputing ongoing official claims about the war was often available to the mainstream press in a timely fashion. Yet the recurrent pattern, even years into the conflict, was for the official government line to trump evidence to the contrary in the news produced by mainstream news outlets reaching the preponderance of the people. Several years into the conflict, public opinion finally began to reflect the reality of a disintegrating Iraq heading toward civil war, with American troops caught in the middle. But that reckoning came several years too late to head off a disaster that historians may well deem far worse than Vietnam.
There is little doubt that reporting which challenges the public pronouncements of those in power is difficult when anything deviating from authorized versions of reality is met with intimidating charges of bias. Out of fairness, the press generally reports those charges, which in turn reverberate through the echo chambers of talk radio and pundit TV, with the ironic result that the media contribute to their own credibility problem. Yet it is precisely the lack of clear standards of press accountability (particularly guidelines for holding officials accountable) that opens the mainstream news to charges of bias from all sides. In short, the absence of much agreement on what the press should be doing makes it all the more difficult for news organizations to navigate an independent course through pressurized political situations.
The key question is, can the American press as it is currently constituted offer critical, independent reporting when democracy needs it most? In particular, this book examines whether the press capable of offering viewpoints independent of government spin at two key moments when democracy would most benefit: (1) when government’s own public-inquiry mechanisms fail to question potentially flawed or contentious policy initiatives, and (2) when credible sources outside government who might illuminate those policies are available to mainstream news organizations. It may seem obvious that the press should contest dubious policies under these circumstances, but our research indicates otherwise. The great irony of the U.S. press system is that it generally performs well—presenting competing views and vigorous debate—when government is already weighing competing initiatives in its various legal, legislative, or executive settings. Unfortunately, quite a different press often shows up when policy decisions of dubious wisdom go unchallenged within government arenas.
The Iraq Story as Told by the Unwritten Rules of Washington Journalism
Our story begins with the post-9/11 publicity given to the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (the now infamous WMDs), and had connections to the terrorists who attacked the United States. Leading news organizations so emphasized those claims over available information to the contrary that two prestigious newspapers later issued apologies to their readers for having gotten so caught up in the inner workings of power in an administration determined to go to war that they lost focus on other voices and other views. Here are excerpts from a now legendary New York Times report from the editors to their readers:
We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.
The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on “regime change” in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. … Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. …
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. … Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.
Despite this introspection, much the same pattern of deferring to officials and underreporting available challenges to their claims would soon repeat itself—beginning the very month in which this critical self-assessment appeared—in reporting on the treatment of prisoners in U.S. military detention centers in Iraq and elsewhere. The importance of the Abu Ghraib story for understanding the close dependence of the press on government spin is developed more fully in chapter 3. For now, the point is that this pattern of calibrating political reality in the news to the inner circles of Washington power will go on, despite occasional moments of self-examination by the press, unless leading news organizations and the journalism profession somehow resolve (and develop a standard) to temper their preoccupation with the powerful officials whose communication experts often manage them so well.
Part of the reason the Iraq story was written much as the Bush administration told it is that nearly every installment was well staged and fed expertly to reporters. It also helped that during the events leading up to the war and much of its aftermath, the stories spun by the Bush team were pretty much the only sustained official versions in town—thanks in part to the particularly hard-hitting style of news management practiced by the administration (discussed in chapter 5). As indicated below, plenty of other sources and bodies of evidence outside official Washington power circles could have been elevated to challenge the administration’s stories, but those challenges either did not emerge aggressively or were reported only in passing—again, because of the administration’s tactics and the unwritten rules followed by the mainstream press for selecting, emphasizing, and sustaining stories. And so, from the WMD story that sold the war to the “mission accomplished” Hollywood ending (which, of course, did not mark the “end” of the war), the unwritten rule of favoring prepackaged, officially sanctioned news events reveals why the ideal of a watchdog press is in trouble.
Consider for a moment that day in May of 2003, when President Bush, wearing a Top Gun flight suit, gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier staged as a big-screen movie set. Nearly every major U. S. news organization reported the story just as it had been scripted. The result was the sort of public relations coup that occurs only when the news can be managed on such a scale. (We believe that the idea originated with a public relations consultant, and was then staged with the considerable resources of the White House communication office and the U.S. military.)
Beyond the irony of a president with a dubious military service record playing Top Gun, the message channeled through the news turned out to be disastrously wrong. But such details were no match for the Hollywood moments that the administration regularly rolled out with the help of Hollywood set directors and Washington PR firms. The news had become something of a reality TV program, replete with dramatic stories from top organizations such as the Washington Post, which published the following:
When the Viking carrying Bush made its tailhook landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off California yesterday, the scene brought presidential imagery to a whole new level. Bush emerged from the cockpit in a full olive flight suit and combat boots, his helmet tucked jauntily under his left arm. As he exchanged salutes with the sailors, his ejection harness, hugging him tightly between the legs, gave him the bowlegged swagger of a top gun.
The fact that all of this was known to have been staged just for this effect did not detract from the amount and prominence of news coverage the media lavished on the event. To the contrary, the orchestration of the event fit perfectly with the unwritten rules of mainstream journalism in the United States, and thus helped make the coverage what it was: dramatic, unchallenged, triumphant, and resonant throughout the media. Beyond this staging, the implicit journalistic preoccupation with political power in Washington shaped the plotline of Mr. Bush’s Top Gun episode. As a result, most of the coverage of the “mission accomplished” moment was not about whether the war was really over (it wasn’t), or even if there was reason to think that things in Iraq were going particularly well (they weren’t). The story was about power in Washington, and in particular, Mr. Bush’s mastery of the imagery of success—which, at that moment, seemed to make him the odds-on favorite in the 2004 election.
The fascinating aspect of such recurrent reporting patterns is that the news itself is the completing link in the image creation process. Reporting stories according to a calculus of government power and dramatic production values often makes the news reality emanating from Washington an insular, circular, and self-fulfilling operation. News and politics loop quickly back on each other because of the press’s preoccupation with how well powerful officials manage their desired images in the news. Thus, in early Iraq coverage, potentially important contextual details such as the dubious reasons and evidence given in support of the war became incidental to the fascination with whether the Bush administration had the image-shaping capacity and the political clout to pull it off.
The Selling of the Iraq War
Consider, along these lines, another important aspect of the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Much as the Hollywood staging of the carrier landing made for a great news event, the campaign to sell the war was designed to help the press make the administration’s story far sharper and more dramatic than the evidence on which it was based. More than a year after a seemingly manufactured case for war had been presented to the public, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) attempted to redefine the political debate by making a speech with this bold claim: “The administration capitalized on the fear created by 9/11 and put a spin on the intelligence and a spin on the truth to justify a war that could well be one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy.” He charged that the war was marketed like a “political product” to help elect Republicans, and that “if Congress and the American People knew the whole truth, America would never have gone to war.” Kennedy was quickly dismissed by the Republican rapid-response network as a traitorous liberal throwback. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said that “[Kennedy’s] hateful attack against the commander in chief would be disgusting if it were not so sad,” adding that Kennedy had “insulted the president’s patriotism.” The story was immediately reduced to the Washington news formula of “he said/he said,” and the larger issue about selling the war based on false advertising was lost in a story about partisan sniping. Even without the vociferous Republican counterattack, Kennedy was not likely to be a decisive player in mobilizing congressional opposition to the war, and thus did not constitute a news source with enough power to sustain another side to the story.
Equally important, Senator Kennedy’s assertion that the Bush administration had marketed the war as a partisan political product came as no news to journalists and other political insiders. A good piece of investigative reporting (characteristically not followed up by the Post or other news organizations) had already been produced six months before, establishing independent evidence for Kennedy’s charges. Two journalists for the Washington Post described a systematic media campaign that had begun in August 2002 with the formation of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), aimed at rolling out a communication strategy for the coming war. WHIG’s “strategic communications” task force planned publicity and news events for a campaign that would start in September, after most Americans (and Congress) had returned from their summer vacations. The Post story quoted White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, from an interview that had appeared in the New York Times nearly a year earlier, on why the campaign had been launched in September: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” This strong signal that the war was being promoted via a concerted communication campaign was in the news fully one and a half years before Kennedy’s assertion.
The important question is, why didn’t this journalistic “common knowledge” about the selling of the war become big news at the time it was first reported, when there was still time to debate the U.S. invasion of Iraq in public? To the contrary, when it was launched in September 2002, the administration’s sales campaign was quickly translated into the news code of the mainstream press and told as a story about how power works in Washington. The fact that the administration was selling the war as a political campaign was noted for the record and then, like much of the its image management operation, passed on to the American public according to plan: prominently featured throughout the news, and unimpeded by serious journalistic investigation of either the sales operation or its veracity. As independent journalist Michael Massing later observed, “Most investigative energy was directed at stories that supported, rather than challenged, the administration’s case.” The result is that the public was saturated with the sales pitch, which was delivered loud and clear throughout the news media.
The nation’s talk shows on the weekend after Labor Day 2002 were filled with Bush administration officials staying on message and reading from a script that pumped fear through the media echo chamber. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President Cheney raised the specter that Saddam’s arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons presented an immediate danger to the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged on CNN’s Late Edition that solid evidence was scarce, but that waiting only increased the risk. Her punch line: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned on CBS’s Face the Nation: “Imagine a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction. It’s not 3,000, it’s tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
In short, a war being promoted through a sales campaign was not the story the news highlighted. The focus of the story was on power—the effectiveness of the campaign in pressuring Congress (and the United Nations) to support the war initiative—not the truth or the propriety of the effort. Here is the New York Times’ account of the opening weekend of the campaign:
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned grimly that “time is not on our side,” President Bush’s top national security officials said nearly in unison today that Saddam Hussein’s efforts to build an arsenal of immensely destructive weapons left the United States little choice but to act against Iraq.
“There shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind that this president is absolutely bound and determined to deal with this threat, and to do whatever is necessary to make certain that we do so,” Mr. Cheney said. He said that Iraq was sparing no effort to revive its nuclear weapon program and that in light of the terror attacks of last Sept. 11, its history with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs directly threatened the United States.
In almost identical language that signaled a carefully coordinated campaign to move Congress and the United Nations in their direction, Mr. Bush’s other top national security officials said on television news programs today that the president would seek support from Congress and the United Nations for action, including a possible military strike. …
It was Mr. Cheney, in a nearly hour-long interview on “Meet the Press,” who outlined the darkest picture of Iraq’s potential threat, not only of Mr. Hussein’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons but of his possible connections to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Mr. Cheney cited what he called a credible but unconfirmed intelligence report that Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, had met at least once in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attacks.
Of Mr. Hussein’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Mr. Cheney said, “All of the experience we have points in the direction that, in the past, we’ve underestimated the extent of his program.” He added that he hoped more intelligence about such efforts could soon be made public, without compromising sources, to help persuade allies, Congress and the public of the need for action.
“One of the real concerns about Saddam Hussein, as well,” he said, “is his biological weapons capability, the fact that he may at some point try to use smallpox, anthrax, plague, some other kind of biological agent against other nations, possibly including even the United States. So this is not just a one-dimensional threat.”
These allegations were sufficiently vague and unsupported to warrant serious questioning, yet they passed through their talk-show conduits into mainstream news reports largely as scripted. Why? For starters, the story was being told by the vice president of the United States himself—the kind of source to which journalists typically show deference in matters of national security. It also helped that this was the most dramatic story of the new millennium. More important, as noted above, the implicit journalistic logic of following the trail of government power drove the media’s own storytelling: the Bush administration was on a course to war, and the issue in the news was not whether the grounds for war were reasonable or honestly presented, but whether they would be opposed and thus derailed by Congress. The eventual failure to win support from the UN was insufficient to introduce serious challenges into the story, because the UN did not have, or was not perceived to have, the power to stop the administration from attacking Iraq.
As it turned out, there was no decisive domestic political opposition sufficient to block the path to war. There was, of course, significant opposition among European publics, but, like the UN resistance, those opponents lacked the perceived power to derail the administration’s war plans. The underreporting of numerous possible challenges to the war campaign effort boiled down to the simple fact that the administration’s claims were largely unopposed by the kinds of powerful officials or decisive institutional actors (the opposition party or key administration defectors) who might have rated another side in the news as it is constructed in the United States.
Journalists, of course, may point to a scattering of investigative reports as evidence that they entered independent concerns into the public record. While this may be strictly true, it does not address the larger issue of why the stories that attempt to hold officials accountable for gaps and outright deceptions often get such small play compared to the stories containing the gaps and deceptions. Unless the press reports sustained challenges to inadequate or deceptive government actions, several important democratic dynamics are unlikely to occur: (1) public opinion will not become meaningfully engaged in deliberation about important competing political considerations; (2) knowledgeable insiders may be reluctant to be whistleblowers absent the protective context of ongoing critical coverage; and (3) ill-considered policies formed and defended by “groupthink” operating inside the circles of power are unlikely to receive critical reexamination. As a result, key claims in the Bush administration’s sales campaign were repeated in the news time and again, with notable effects on public opinion, despite little supporting evidence. The two most notable claims are addressed in the next section.
WMDs and the Al Qaeda Connection
Perhaps the central example that illustrates the press’s having limited capacity to challenge potentially questionable, but dominant, official accounts involves the allegation of links between the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and between Saddam and 9/11. Those claims, like the charges that Saddam possessed WMDs, were asserted repeatedly by high administration officials including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but little solid evidence was ever presented. To the contrary, there was ample evidence that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had condemned Saddam’s government as a secular threat to Islamic fundamentalism, and that Saddam feared an Islamic threat to his rule. Indeed, after Saddam’s capture, documents were found in his possession ordering Iraqi resistance fighters to refuse to cooperate with any Islamic fundamentalists who entered Iraq, suggesting that Al Qaeda, while sharing an antagonism toward the United States, was also seen as a threat to stir Islamic revolution in Iraq.
Despite the available challenges to this core rationale for the war promoted by the Bush administration, the durability of the SaddamûAl Qaeda connection in public opinion polls continued years into the conflict. Just the right dose of reinforcements from high administration sources continued to receive publicity from news organizations that were curiously ill equipped to balance the spurious claims. Indeed, the underlying ethos of “we report (what officials say), you decide (if it is true)” results in the odd problem of balancing erroneous claims. It might make sense to worry more about whether such claims should be reported so decorously at all. In any event, a poll conducted in July 2006, more than three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, found that 64% of Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein’s regime had strong ties with Al Qaeda—even though volumes of contrary information circulated just beyond, and sometimes even found its way into, the mainstream press.
There was similarly little evidence presented to support the alleged existence of WMDs—particularly nuclear weapons capacity—that was offered as the imminent threat to U.S. national security that justified the war. The slim evidence put forward by government officials was overplayed in the news, as indicated in the published apologies of both the Times and the Post. Weaknesses in the accounts and challenges to claimed evidence were either buried deep in the newspapers’ inside pages or not examined much at all. Here is how the Times’ editorial apology to its readers assessed the paper’s reporting on an intelligence finding about the aluminum tubes alleged to be part of Saddam’s hidden operation to manufacture nuclear materials:
On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: “The first sign of a æsmoking gun,’” they argue, “may be a mushroom cloud.”
Five days later, the Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view (“White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons”). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.
Other evidence being pushed by the Bush administration to support its case for war was similarly disputed within government intelligence circles, but effective management of a compliant press kept the lid on the story. For example, intelligence analysts suspected that the document underlying the administration’s charges that Saddam tried to purchase bomb-grade uranium in Africa was a fabrication. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency asked that the claim be removed from a Bush speech during the fall 2002 campaign to raise support for the war. The CIA again pushed successfully for removing the charge from the U.S. ambassador’s speech to the UN Security Council later in December. Yet the uranium charge reappeared at White House insistence in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address that signaled the coming war. Months after it was discredited, the charge continued to be spread in news interviews and speeches by other administration officials, who simply attributed the claim to British intelligence reports that also proved to be groundless. The repetition of the dubious charge by nearly every top official in the coming weeks was part of the “strategic coordination” of the administration’s message, as described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett.
When Joseph Wilson, a well-respected retired U.S. diplomat, was moved by the administration’s inaccuracy to explain publicly in an editorial that the nuclear weapons charge had been discredited, the White House retaliated by leaking the identity of his wife, the now well-known Valerie Plame, who was working undercover for the CIA. This bit of hardball led to a special prosecutor investigation of the White House’s breach of national security law, and ironically dragged journalists into the awkward position of protecting the very sources who had tried to use them to dissemble public information. As discussed further below, the close news-making ties between key administration figures and prominent reporters like Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, who wittingly or unwittingly helped the administration to damage Wilson and manage the news, are the all-important backstory that explains much of the front-page coverage of the lead-up to the war. We explore the Wilson-Plame incident as one of many examples of the administration’s bare-knuckle news management tactics in chapter 5.
The Intelligence Fiasco
The press’s now familiar inability to create better balance independently in its news stories occurred again after the invasion of Iraq, when reporting turned to the particulars of the intelligence that was presented as cause for the war. Once again, the issue is not whether another side to the Bush administration’s story ever appeared in the news; it did. But once again, it came and went without leaving much of a trace on public opinion or gaining the prominence needed to provide a safe and inviting public context for other government opponents to speak out.
Perhaps the Iraq story that had the greatest potential effects on public comprehension and government debate was the issue of the faulty intelligence that led to the war. Was the intelligence failure a product of poorly organized and ill-qualified intelligence agencies, as the administration and many in Congress offered as their version of the story? Or was it more the case, as a lesser told version of the story had it, that the desire for war at the highest levels of the administration essentially forced intelligence agencies to certify and promote internally contested and knowingly weak intelligence? It is ironic that this important alternative version of the intelligence story—one with the potential to unravel many other claims by the administration—had such trouble gaining traction in the news despite a stream of former officials who came and went in the front pages, echoing similar versions of these stark challenges to the administration’s preferred story.
Impressive as those sources were, they simply operated with a news deficit given their status as past officials who no longer had the mechanisms of office and power to advance their stories. Yet their stories were enormously important, and largely consistent with one another in corroborating firsthand knowledge that high-level administration officials may have pressured intelligence agencies for information to support a preordained war. These charges were lodged in various forms by former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, former security adviser Richard Clarke, and first-term secretary of state Colin Powell’s then chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, among others, who simply could not compete with the administration’s news-making capacity to beat them back.
Consider, for example, the news moment surrounding O’Neill, who claimed that discussions about overthrowing Saddam Hussein were held from the earliest cabinet meetings of the Bush administration, long before the attacks of 9/11. In the book The Price of Loyalty, O’Neill charged that 9/11 merely provided the pretext for a war that was already on the agendas of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and the president, among others. According to O’Neill, who had been a trusted Bush political ally, the administration’s belief was that regime change in Iraq would provide a model for democracy that would transform the rest of the region. The main question, he claimed, was how to justify going to war, and the president set a tone of “Fine. Go find me a way to do this.” Both Bush and Rumsfeld issued strong denials after the book came out, and the White House retaliated by calling for an investigation of whether O’Neill had broken governmental secrecy laws in providing the author with official documents to back up his claims.
Such reports came and went in the news, with the stories taking on a “he said/they said” quality. In such stories, the advantage quickly tilted to administration officials with better news access and the inclination to challenge ferociously the patriotism and credibility of anyone who might question their preferred script. And so the charges that the administration had pressed for intelligence to support the war also came and went as sporadic news backdrop—sustained mainly as long as the sources were able to promote their books on cable and late-night television shows. Even Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson received little news traction for his charge that the war was pushed through the administration by a “cabal” of Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
The parade of former Washington insiders—former government officials and lower-level officials such as agency technicians and bureaucrats — pointing out the spurious origins of the war in Iraq came and went, with most of them quickly dropping from the news. Even though, as long-time government insiders, they enjoyed considerable credibility among journalists, as mere former officials they lacked the daily story-advancing mechanisms attached to their former offices and institutional processes to keep their side of the story in the news through the daily update mechanisms of press briefings, hearings, official trips, investigations, court cases, legislative debates, and other government news levers. As we explain further in chapter 5, some of these critics had somewhat greater success in sustaining media attention than others, depending in large part on their own public relations resources and their personal vulnerability to intimidation by the administration.
What about those potential storytellers who did have access to the institutional mechanisms that drive stories—members of Congress in particular? They were effectively held hostage to their earlier acceptance of the administration spin that filled the public sphere. Since the climate of press debate about the grounds for war was so stifling that most Democrats ended up voting for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and publicly accepting the dubious intelligence as grounds for military action (which, of course, further stifled news coverage), there was little room for them to stake out a subsequent antiwar position when the early rationale proved unfounded. Cries of deception were quickly deflected by administration officials who said that the Democrats had seen the same intelligence reports that the administration saw, and that everyone then believed that Iraq presented an imminent security threat. Latter-day critics, the administration charged, were exercising convenient hindsight.
All of this may seem strange to an outsider who, when presented with the facts, might simply reason that since intelligence may have been cooked to pave the way for an unwarranted war, the opposition would have reason to cry foul, and to use this as a key issue in upcoming election campaigns. Yet the capacity of the Bush administration to promote its news story of intelligence failure and reform over considerable evidence to the contrary made it difficult for the Democrats to formulate and publicize possible objections, particularly when confronted with equally blaring news featuring the administration’s charges of waffling and lack of patriotism among the opposition. Once again, the absence of an institutional power platform from which to press their case left the Democrats in a defensive position of denying the administration’s smear charges, at least as the press chose to construct the story.
So ingrained is this press calibration of the relative power and status of the available sources when constructing balance, plot, and viewpoint in news stories that even the revelation of “smoking gun”ûtype evidence about the administration’s intelligence fixing was similarly marginalized. On April 30, 2005, the Times of London published minutes of a secret meeting between Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and top British military and intelligence officials. The minutes showed that a core topic was constructing a legal cover for going to war in light of documents from a high British intelligence official who had attended prewar meetings in Washington, at which time it was made clear that 9/11 was being used as a pretext for removing Saddam Hussein from power. As his report put it, the “facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Yet when the so-called Downing Street Memo was disclosed soon thereafter in the United States, it was largely treated either as old news or as a British politics story (an election problem for Blair). Even the huge surge of blogging activity aimed at getting the mainstream media to take up the story was largely ineffective. One of our sources interviewed revealed that the pesky bloggers squeezed only one grudging front-page story out of the Washington Post.
The importance of power calculations in the making of a political news story was further evidenced by how the Washington Post constructed the attempt of Representative John Conyers (D-MI) to publicize the implications of the memo by holding a House informational hearing. That hearing was held in the political context of Republican dominance of the House, and the continuing muddle among Democrats about making an election issue out of being deceived on the war. Given this context, the hearing was unlikely to result either in a shift in Democratic position or in any direct political repercussions for the Bush administration. The degree to which these power considerations by the press trumped (indeed defined) the implications of the document is shown in a telling story by Washington Post reporter-analyst Dana Milbank which began with the headline “Democrats Play House to Rally against the War.” The lead sentence was even more revealing about the power calculus underlying news construction: “In the Capitol basement yesterday, long suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe.”
For some news organizations, the lack of coverage became a larger story than the story itself, suggesting that many journalists knew they were looking at something important, but simply could not imagine how to fashion a big sustainable story out of it. And so they blinked. In an NPR commentary, Daniel Schorr called it the biggest “under-covered story of the year.”