BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. The question has raged since before the invasion of Iraq: was the decision for war made by the White House immediately after 9/11, with the square peg of intelligence data pounded into the round hole of arguments for war, or was the administration telling the truth all along and giving peace a chance? Former White House terrorism czar Richard Clarke has written that the decision was already made to force the ousting of Saddam, but until five weeks ago, there was little hard evidence to back up his claim. That was when a bombshell exploded in the Times of London. A story there features a memo of the minutes of a meeting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had with some of his top intelligence aides on July 23rd, 2002, at the prime minister's official residence, Number 10 Downing Street. The memo purportedly said that Blair was told in 2002 that the intelligence was being "fixed around" the Bush administration's case for war. The war began in March 2003. That story about the so-called Downing Street Memo ran in Britain May 1st, four days before the British election. Since then, the U.S. media have largely been silent. Then, on Tuesday, at a White House press conference, Reuters reporter Steve Holland confronted the president and Prime Minister Blair.
STEVE HOLLAND: Thank you, sir. On, on Iraq, the, the so-called Downing Street Memo from July, 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this a accurate reflection of what happened, and could both of you respond?
BOB GARFIELD: The following day, the Downing Street Memo had a newfound urgency in major American newspapers - including USA Today. Mark Memmott wrote the USA Today story, and he joins me now. Mark, Welcome back to OTM.
MARK MEMMOTT: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, not only was Wednesday's story that you wrote in USA Today the first mention of the Downing Street Memo in USA Today. You took pains in the story to point out that it was the first mention of the Downing Street Memo. Now that's unusual on the face of it, isn't it?
MARK MEMMOTT: Yeah, it certainly is, but of course the buzz word in journalism today is transparency, and if we hadn't addressed that, it would have been a pretty gaping hole in the story.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about gaping holes, because the Downing Street Memo came out on May 1st, and has resonated loudly in the blogosphere, and certainly news organizations have been inundated in the United States by requests for more coverage of it. Yet, that coverage, as you observed in your story, has been largely absent. A few mentions. Nowhere on page one, and with very little follow up.
MARK MEMMOTT: It's ironic to some extent. I mean last year, the media was jumped on because of the Texas Air National Guard documents that CBS said it had. Bloggers were all over them about the authenticity of those. Now, some in the blogosphere were all over the media for not writing about documents which almost all the media had not seen - only the Sunday Times of London had actual copies that they said were from reliable sources. Others only had second-hand information. So that explains a lot of the reluctance, at least on the U.S. media's part, to really weigh in on this one, I think. And I know that there were attempts made to try to authenticate and obtain the information so that we could do a story, and we just never got to the point, I'm told, where we could.
BOB GARFIELD: It was something like 38 days from the time the memo was mentioned in the Times of London till it showed up in USA Today. Apart from the question of authenticity, any other considerations in not even mentioning the story until now?
MARK MEMMOTT: There were several. I mean one is, we and other newspapers as well and other media, had written a lot in early 2002 about how the Bush administration was beginning the drum beat - was moving toward a decision to go to war, to take military action in Iraq. It wouldn't happen until a year later, but there were lots of stories, so that I think there was some sense also among editing ranks that, well, we knew this. We knew that the Bush administration had decided well beforehand what its policy course was going to be. Yes, this is important; yes, this is a document which seems to put it down on paper, but I think there was a sense of well, is this old news, and how important is it?
BOB GARFIELD: Now there is a line in the Downing Street Memo - let's say it's authentic for a moment - that the argument for war has to be fixed around intelligence gathered. And the interpretation-- at least by the people who are writing to our show - is that the intelligence findings were fixed, that they were manipulated in order to bolster arguments for war. But there's some dispute about whether that's the right interpretation of those words.
MARK MEMMOTT: Britain and the United States are separated by a common language, I think is the cliché. To someone in Britain, it's possible that that phrase, fixed around, could mean attached to or bolted on, not necessarily skewed. It's possible that that phrase, fixed around, could also mean, well they selectively take good intelligence, and that's what they emphasize, to build their case. So that's where the argument comes down to why it's so important to find out exactly what the person who wrote that meant.
BOB GARFIELD: So what was the event that finally gave you the confidence to go forward?
MARK MEMMOTT: It was pretty clear that with the prime minister in town, the fact that he was going to have a joint press conference with the President, that this question was among those likely to be asked. So it was logical to get all the B matter ready about how the media had covered it, make sure I understood what our position had been along the way. And then, when the question was asked, and both the president and Prime Minister Blair addressed it, the peg was clear.
BOB GARFIELD: Your story - there was one line that made me laugh out loud - because you mentioned someone who wrote to your [LAUGHS] paper insisting not only that you write about it but that you give it the same incessant drum beat coverage that you give Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson. Is that a fair comment?
MARK MEMMOTT: I think it certainly is from the reader and especially from the advocate's point of view. Media can always be accused of going for the sensational story versus the one that has more substance. What the reader - what the advocates don't sometimes understand - of course, are the weights and the checks and balances and the decision-making process of the editors as they try to figure out how credible, how real is a story, and I think that's where the battle, if you will, was on this one.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Mark, thanks very much for joining us.
MARK MEMMOTT: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Memmott is a reporter for USA Today. [MUSIC]