The Downing Street Memo seems like one of the stranger episodes in media history—with major media virtually ignoring dramatic new evidence in a major story, and then inventing peculiar excuses for why they hadn’t covered it.
But in context, media behavior makes perfect sense. When George W. Bush claimed, throughout 2002 and 2003, that he saw war with Iraq as a last resort, journalists knew that was a lie. But as the New York Times Elisabeth Bumiller declared (Extra!, 1-2/05), “You can’t just say the president is lying.”
Not only did they not say what they knew to be the case, but they attacked and derided anyone who suggested that the emperor wasn’t fully clothed. When Rep. Mike Thompson (D.-Calif.) expressed doubts about Bush’s claims about an Iraq/Al-Qaeda connection, CNN’s Connie Chung (10/7/02) rebuked him: “You mean you don’t believe what President Bush just said?… It sounds almost as if you’re asking the American public, ‘Believe Saddam Hussein, don’t believe President Bush.’” (See FAIR Action Alert, 10/10/02.)
Of course, after the administration went ahead and invaded Iraq, no evidence of Al-Qaeda ties surfaced, and no proscribed weapons, either. The fiction that Bush didn’t want to go to war became even more important, because it was that lie that allowed the other lies to be presented as honest mistakes, intelligence failures or even elaborate hoaxes engineered by Saddam Hussein himself (Extra!, 5-6/04).
Now along comes evidence from the United States’ closest ally that, no, it was all a lie all along: “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action,” the memo stated; “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of invading; “the case was thin” for going to war.
No one likes being exposed as a liar, or as an enabler of liars. That’s why all the self-contradictory excuses get trotted out: It doesn’t prove anything. We all knew that. It’s not really such a big deal. We covered that at the time.
It all amounts to the same thing: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.