The uncritical promotion and amplification in U.S. media of claims that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” played a crucial role in preparing U.S. public opinion, if not to support, then at least to acquiesce in, the U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses and in violation of international law in 2003. Thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, in part, because most of the mainstream U.S. media did not do its job.
The situation with respect to Iran policy today is certainly not an exact analogy to Iraq 2003. Whatever else may be true, the Obama Administration is not explicitly campaigning for war with Iran; indeed, the Obama Administration is officially dubious of the case for war, at least so long as U.S. intelligence agencies continue to believe, as they do today, that Iran has not made a decision to try to build a nuclear weapon.
But it’s still the case that we see false claims that appear to buttress the case for the war uncritically amplified in mainstream U.S. media. And if our experience with the Iraq war tells us anything, it tells us that the best time to challenge such claims is not on the eve of a Congressional vote authorizing war, when media are most likely to uncritically accept the line of the current Administration, but before the U.S. Administration commits to war, when U.S. media are more open to critical facts and opinions.
Last December, Just Foreign Policy began to aggressively monitor and challenge U.S. media for falsifiable claims that appear to buttress the case for war.
It is important to keep in mind that while it is wonderful to obtain formal corrections, the far more important goal is to change future behavior. If reporters and editors remember that making a particular unfounded assertion generated a lot of complaint, they will likely think twice about making that unfounded assertion again.
Here are some examples of actions we’ve taken so far, and what the impact has been.
Last December, Just Foreign Policy initiated a campaign to get the Washington Post to correct a photo gallery headline which asserted as if it were fact the allegation that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Over 1500 Just Foreign Policy advocates emailed the Post ombudsman, Patrick Pexton. In response, the Post edited their headline and added an editor’s note to explain the change. Mr. Pexton also wrote about the issue in his Sunday column.
In January, a Washington Post news article used the phrase “Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon” despite the fact that the paper’s ombudsman had agreed a month before that the use of this phrase was “misleading.” We contacted Patrick Pexton, the Post’s ombudsman. The online text was corrected, about six hours after its initial publication; there was no formal correction.
To our knowledge, the Post has not used the phrase “Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon” in news reporting since.
New York Times
On January 4, 2012, the New York Times published an article that falsely claimed that the latest IAEA report assessed that “Iran’s nuclear program has a military objective.” The Times deleted this false claim without publishing a correction. On the same day, another article in the Times referred to Iran’s “development of nuclear weapons” as if it were a known fact that Iran were engaging in such activity, which it is not.
We wrote about the Times’ reporting and encouraged people to contact the New York Times Public Editor.
The Times’ Public Editor responded in his column, agreeing that the Times should publish a correction [the Times never did so.]
To our knowledge, the Times never subsequently claimed that the IAEA report said that Iran had a military nuclear program.
On April 14, in the lead up to the Istanbul talks between the P5+1 and Iran, the New York Times published an article which questioned Supreme Leader Khamenei’s assertions that Iran is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons by claiming to demonstrate contradictions in Khamenei’s statements, and by appeal to the Shia doctrine of “taqiyya,” which according to the Times account, gives religious sanction for Shias to lie.
According to the Times’ reporting, Khamenei said: “[Qaddafi] wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’” The Times article claimed that this statement was a contradiction to the idea that Iran was not interested in nuclear weapons. But according to the Times own reporting, there was no reference in Khamenei’s quote to a “nuclear weapons program”, only to “nuclear facilities”, which of course are not the same thing.
As Juan Cole noted in his criticism of the Times article, “taqiyya” is not a dogma with official sanction in modern Iran, and moreover it was never a license to lie about anything one wished–only to conceal being Shia in order to avoid persecution and death. No experts on Shia Islam were cited in the Times article, nor was the claim attributed to any person, expert or not.
Just Foreign Policy called upon the New York Times to correct their article; but despite nearly 2400 email messages from our members, the Times never responded.
To our knowledge, these claims were never repeated in the Times.
On January 8, 2012, NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday reporter Tom Gjelten said, “The goal for the U.S. and its allies … [is] to convince Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program.” This claim implied that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, which is not a known fact. Just Foreign Policy urged NPR to issue a correction; the NPR ombudsman rejected the criticism, claiming that NPR had not implied that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
Just Foreign Policy joined Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting in challenging PBS’s NewsHour in their misleading edit of a clip in which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that Iran was not trying to develop a nuclear weapon but that US intelligence believed Iran to be seeking a nuclear weapons capability. NewsHour edited out the first part of the quote, only leaving the part about Iran seeking a nuclear weapons capability, thus potentially misleading viewers into believing that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
PBS’s ombudsman admitted to being “mystified” by the edit. The NewsHour editor responsible for the segment said that “it would have been better had we not lopped off the first part of the Panetta quote.” PBS did not make a formal correction.