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The Downing Street Memo and the Court of Appeal in News Judgment

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About the Downing Street Memo--which I think deserves sustained news attention, real Congressional hearings, questions and answers at White House briefings, continued blogging, serious examination by all Americans (including the President's supporters) and the interest of future historians, essentially for the reasons articulated here--I have one thought to contribute.

"News stories," Joshua Marshall once said, "have a 24 hour audition on the news stage, and if they don't catch fire in that 24 hours, there's no second chance." His observation appears in the Harvard Kennedy School case study on the fall of Trent Lott (published in March 2004, a pdf.)

But that's not the way the world works anymore. The 24-hour audition still happens, and the big winners are still big news. But now there is a Court of Appeal in the State of Supreme News Judgment, and everyone knows the initial verdict can be reversed. Reversal on appeal came last week for the Downing Street Memo (now memos, plural) about 45 days after the first story broke.

We should use the opportunity to understand how the court works. (Other cases include the fate of Trent Lott, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) For if the news judgment of journalists is not final anymore, this only reminds us that it was never good enough to be as final as once it was.

The traditional press is "no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled," I wrote in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15). "Not sovereign doesn't mean you go away. It means your influence isn't singular anymore." The Court of Appeal for news judgment, which sits on the left sometimes, and other times on the right, is an example of that.

What journalists call news judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren't news. But if you weren't news how would anyone know enough about you (or care) to contest the ruling? That's what having singular influence was all about. The way it works today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.

Now if there's something newsworthy coming out of the U.K. but neglected in America the political blogs in America and other activists online keep talking about it. Quickly the story's unjust obscurity will reach a political player who can change that by acting in a newsworthy way, lending fresh facts and additional reason to cover the story.

By such means the appeal of news judgment starts to take shape. This happened within a week when Conyers began circulating a letter to President Bush--signed by 88 Democrats--that demanded from Bush an explanation. The Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, increasingly a dissident voice on these matters, treated that letter as news in a May 6 report. (The signers were up to 122 by the time Conyers sent his letter.)

Players in politics, reading the blogs (or in the case of Conyers, writing for them), pick up the chatter and amplify it. Radio talk show hosts, also reading the blogs, and getting the e-mails from activists, amplify the chatter some more. Columnists who weren't a part of the consensus pay attention, seeking vindication for their own judgment. And all these players together mount the appeal. They go into Supreme News Court and say: "the press denied us, but we have a case."

On June 7, for example, Jefferson Morley of the Washington Post (who wrote about the memo May 3 for the Washington Post, but only in the online edition) pointed out that "the so-called Downing Street Memo remains among the top 10 most viewed articles on The Times of London site." All those clicks are part of the appeals process. Web users are speaking. "Reader interest" (one factor in news judgment) is being shown. So too with calls and e-mails to ombudsmen at newspapers. These helped trigger Barney Calame's report about the New York Times's coverage, and two Michael Getler columns about the Washington Post's decisions.

At the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, reader representative Kate Parry forwarded a reader's e-mail to nation & world editor Dennis McGrath. She asked him if he knew anything about the story. Parry describes what happened:

McGrath knew about the memo -- but not from the traditional news wires. In this country, wire services had provided only a brief mention of it May 2 deep in a New York Times advancer on the British election. McGrath knew about it because he had started getting the e-mails, too.

He and his wire editors began watching for a wire story. A week later, they were still watching.

"We were frustrated the wires weren't providing stories on this," McGrath said. Finally, he gave up waiting for the wires and assigned reporter Sharon Schmickle to write about it -- despite the geographic disadvantage of reporting from Minneapolis on a story breaking in London.

Parry added that the Downing Street memo story had "played out almost identically to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story last year. McGrath learned about the group and its ads from the Internet long before the wire services offered stories. He had a local reporter do that story as well." That's the Court of Appeal in session.

In any successful appeal, when the press digs in and ignores the story, this creates a second story, the subject of which is faulty news judgment. It's usually phrased as a question: Did the (news) judges rule in error? (Christian Science Monitor, May 17: "Why has 'Downing Street memo' story been a 'dud' in US?") Howard Kurtz finally made the case Thursday. The question, What about the Downing Street memo? had been asked so often, he wrote, it "forced the mainstream media to take a second look."

NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin told Salon, "It's a bigger story than we've given it. It deserves more attention." He added, "It may have been blog-induced in the beginning, but now it has legs of its own."

When the second look was taken, some key editors judged themselves at fault. USA Today's senior assignment editor for foreign news, Jim Cox said not reporting on the memo was a mistake. "I wish we'd had something in early on, and I wish we'd been able to move the memo story forward. I feel like we missed an opportunity, and that's my fault," he said to Salon's Eric Boehlert. Deborah Seward, AP's international editor, issued a statement, "There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner." (See this weekend's AP story.)

That's called winning on appeal.

Mark Danner writes in the June 9 New York Review of Books that the ultimate importance of the leaked memo "has to do with a certain attitude about facts," namely that they can be "fixed around the policy," as the document states. He points out that this is "an argument about power, and its influence on truth."

Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe.

I don't think the press has learned how to deal yet with "power shapes truth," or the extreme contempt for reason-giving the Bush Administration has shown on matters of war and peace. For example, in judging whether a story deserves further play the press will ask, "were the facts in it previously reported?" (a news test) rather than asking: have the facts in it been successfully denied at the top? (which is a power-shapes-truth question.) Ultimately this confusion helps explain the original judgment that the memo was not news, and the success of the appeal.