Thursday, June 30, 2005

Downing Street Memo Hits the Hometown Papers

Is the Downing Street Memo(DSM) story playing in Peoria, that classic mid-country metaphor for small-town America?

You betcha it is.

Under the headline "House Forum Focuses on Downing Street," The Peoria Journal Star ran a substantial story on the Conyers hearing on June 17. It printed the memos. On June 19 it ran in full AP correspondent Thomas Wagner's detailed and lengthy story about the memos. On June 21, in an editorial about the war, the paper stated, "Americans need to hear a forthright and thoughtful response to the Downing Street Memo." On the web version of the paper, links to the memo story appeared on page one, adjacent to coverage of the June 28 Bush speech on the war.

And the folks in Peoria are far from alone in being informed by their hometown papers about the Downing Street Memo. It's clear from the dramatic increase recently in DSM mentions in articles, letters and editorials that the June 16 Conyers hearing marked a tipping point for the DSM story in hometown papers around the nation.

Smaller city papers do look to their wire services for what stories to emphasize. That's why Knight Ridder's early and consistent coverage of the issue mattered.

Wire services and citizens' demands helped to drive DSM on to the pages of hometown papers. But their editors also oftentimes took the initiative. Not many papers assigned a reporter to the story like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis did. But in small papers as diverse as The Billings Outpost (Montana), the Bangor Daily News (Maine), and The Free Lance Star (Fredricksburg, Virginia), editors have begun to weigh in on the DSM in corporate and signed editorials. Cathy Siegner of the Billings Outpost for example notes, "Deliberately misleading Congress is an impeachable offense. Two recent presidents were impeached for far less."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune flatly states that "both British and American citizens were duped" into hoping the U.N. process could prevent the war. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Morford calls the lies that led us into this war "staggering, appalling" and concludes, "Of course Bush deserves to be impeached."

But the story is being covered in unexpected ways in unexpected places too such as in the hometown paper of the U.S. military, Stars and Stripes, which quoted Celeste Zappala, a gold star mother from the anti-Iraq war group Military Families Speak Out. Likewise, the Lexington Kentucky Herald carried a story about Cindy Sheehan, also a gold star mother and one of the citizens who testified at the Conyers hearing. The Houston Chronicle, like Peoria's paper, printed the entire June 20 AP story.

The Downing Street memo story definitely has legs. It has survived the "court of appeals" as Jay Rosen has termed the process by which a story ignored by the mainstream media can be given new life via the Internet and rebound from the blogosphere back on to the radar of the mainstream media. When it comes time to look back on what might prove to be a critical incident in American history, we'll be lauding the independence of America's hometown dailies for helping to raise the consciousness of the nation.

You betcha we will.


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