While some in the corporate media, such as this article in the LA Times, question how the US has any idea about Iran’s actual nuclear program, the bigger question is how journalists report the information given by military and government sources. Do they become, like in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, propagandists for war?
The New York Times’ Public Editor asks some questions (which virtually no other MSM outlets are doing) even though I personally disagree with his findings (being far too soft on his superiors over war-mongering):
“We talk about generals fighting the last war,” said Tim McNulty, who served as foreign editor for The Chicago Tribune during the Iraq war. “I think journalists also do.”
Nine years after the start of the Iraq war, the scene has shifted to Iran, and Mr. McNulty has a more detached view of events, as co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University. Now he cautions journalists against falling again for a kind of siren song: “the narrative of war.”
“The narrative of war, or anticipating war, is a much stronger narrative than the doubters have,” he said. “It is an easier story to write than the question of, well, is it really necessary?”
In recent months I have heard from many readers concerned that The New York Times is falling for this siren song, the narrative of war, in its coverage of Iran’s nuclear program. Not infrequently, readers and critics invoke Judith Miller’s now-discredited coverage in The Times of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, as if to say it is all happening again.
Among the criticisms are that The Times has given too much space to Israeli proponents of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; has failed to mention often enough that Israel itself has nuclear arms; has sometimes overstated the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency; has repeated the questionable assertion that Iran’s leaders seek the eradication of Israel; has failed to analyze the Iranian supreme leader’s statement that nuclear weapons are a “sin”; and has published misleading headlines.
William O. Beeman, author of “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other,” told me he believes The Times’s coverage has contributed to a dangerous public misunderstanding of the situation.
“The conventional wisdom with regard to Iran is that Iran has a nuclear weapons program and that they are going to attack Israel and going to attack the United States,” said Mr. Beeman, who is chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota. “But all these things are tendentious and highly questionable.”
Mr. Beeman faulted The Times for mischaracterizing I.A.E.A. reports and for a “disconnect between headline and the actual material in the stories that really affects public opinion,” saying these problems raised a question about the “civic responsibility of The Times.”
This bill of particulars against The Times’s coverage weighs heavily, but it is clear to me that this is not a replay of the Judith Miller episode. I do find examples that support the complaints mentioned above, but also see a pattern of coverage that gives due credence to the counternarrative — not of war but of uncertainty and caution.
Jill Abramson, executive editor of The Times, told me the paper is “certainly mindful that some readers may see an echo of the paper’s flawed coverage of Iraq,” but she also noted distinct differences. This time, she said, the United States government is expressing doubts about weapons of mass destruction, not leading the drumbeat for war. And there is no question that Iran has a nuclear program; it’s just unclear whether it is for civilian or military use.
Times journalists “are mindful of our responsibility to be vigilant, skeptical and fair,” she said. “Last month, when the calls for striking Iran began to grow louder, we brought together the foreign and Washington desks and came up with a run of stories designed to examine closely the statements made by those on both sides of the argument, especially the rising calls for a military strike.”
Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist who spent much of 2011 in Iran, observed that news coverage has left Americans with a caricatured understanding not only of Iran’s leaders but of its people “as being completely oppressed or completely lunatic.”
What is needed from The Times, he added, is more effort not only to get ordinary Iranian voices into the coverage but also to reach across the cultural divide to fully understand significant statements from the Iranian leadership, like the fatwa against nuclear weapons by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.
I share this view and believe the West’s inability to understand the other side’s leadership may have a parallel with the run-up to the Iraq war. Once again, the stakes are high for all involved, including The Times, which has an opportunity to get it right this time.