May 20 2005

Network Viewers Still in the Dark on "Smoking Gun Memo"

Print media continue to downplay story

Following FAIR’s call for more mainstream coverage of the “smoking gun memo”—the secret British document containing new evidence that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify its plan to invade Iraq—a steady trickle of news reports have appeared. But that coverage has been downplayed in general and is still completely absent from the nightly news.

The Los Angeles Times published a page 3 story on the memo on May 12, and the Washington Post ran a page 18 story the following day. More than two weeks after the story broke in the Sunday Times of London (5/1/05), it finally made the front page of a major U.S. newspaper, the Chicago Tribune (5/17/05).

After referring to the memo (5/2/05) in a story on the British electoral campaign, the New York Times failed to report on the document’s implications about the Bush administration until today (5/20/05); the one-column story didn’t mention the manipulation of intelligence until the eighth paragraph. (Times columnist Paul Krugman also discussed the memo on the paper’s opinion page on May 16.)

The Washington Post‘s ombudsman, Michael Getler, who the previous week (5/8/05) had mentioned reader complaints about the Post‘s lack of memo coverage without evaluating their substance, revisited the issue with a much more critical eye in his most recent column (5/15/05). (The ombud gave back-handed credit to FAIR and the group Media Matters for America—both “self-described media watchdog organizations”—for prompting him to delve into the story.) Getler wrote that Post editors initially told him they didn’t pursue the story because they were “tied up with election coverage”—this despite the fact that the leaked memo became a major election story in Britain and likely contributed to Tony Blair’s weak returns. When he questioned them again after the email campaign, Getler wrote, “editors agreed that this story should be covered and said they were going to go back and do that”; the Post‘s May 13 story followed.

Getler called investigation of the memo’s conclusions “journalistically mandatory” and suggested that the Post story should have been placed on the front page.

While the memo has begun to get wider coverage in print, broadcasters have maintained a near silence on the issue. The story has turned up in a few short CNN segments (Crossfire, 5/13/05; Live Sunday, 5/15/05; Wolf Blitzer Reports, 5/16/05), but the only mention of the memo FAIR found on the major broadcast networks came on ABC‘s Sunday morning show This Week (5/15/05), in which host George Stephanopoulos questioned Sen. John McCain about its contents. When McCain declared that he didn’t “agree with it” and defended the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, Stephanopoulos didn’t question him further. A look at the nightly news reveals not a single story aired about the memo and its implications.

When finally questioned by CNN (5/16/05), White House press secretary Scott McClellan claimed he hadn’t seen the memo, but that “the reports” about it were “flat-out wrong.” British government officials, however, did not dispute the contents of the memo—which can be read in full online at —and a former senior American official called it “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired” (Knight Ridder, 5/6/05).

The Chicago Tribune (5/17/05) named several factors that had caused a “less than robust discussion” of the British memo: Aside from the White House’s denials, and the media’s slow reaction, the paper asserted that “the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war.” Of course, it’s hard to judge the public’s interest in a story the media have largely shielded them from.


Please contact the nightly news programs and ask them to investigate and report on the new evidence that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its plan to invade Iraq.


ABC World News Tonight

Phone: 212-456-4040

CBS Evening News

Phone: 212-975-3691

NBC Nightly News

Phone: 212-664-4971

PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Phone: 703-739-5000

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.