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From AJR,   February/March 2008  issue

Second Time Around   

February/March » After their credulous performance in the run-up to the war in Iraq, how are the news media handling the Bush administration’s allegations against Iran?


By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

From the moment the three-and-a-half-minute video begins, there is a chilling sense of déjà vu.

At one point, a grim-faced John Bolton appears on the screen to make a pitch for war. "I hope it is not going to take another 9/11 to wake us up," says the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In another clip, Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly solemnly warns, "People don't understand the danger that this country poses to the world." Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) adds, "These people are out to kill us." During the broadcast, there are charges of links to al Qaeda, development of a nuclear arsenal and killing of U.S. soldiers.

Suddenly, a graphic pops up and poses the question: "Sound familiar?"

Bolton, O'Reilly and Lieberman are talking about Iran, not Iraq, in a video by filmmaker and political activist Robert Greenwald designed to show that little has changed at Fox News Channel since the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. "Fox Attacks: Iran" has been a popular Internet attraction, garnering nearly 800,000 hits on YouTube.

Excerpts from newscasts were used to compare reporting before the Iraq invasion in 2003 to coverage of allegations against Iran in 2007. The drumbeats for war, played side by side on foxattacks.com/iran, have a haunting resonance.

Fox News Channel is not alone. Other news organizations have also come under fire for reporting too credulously on Iran, raising the question of whether the media learned anything from their poor performance before the Iraq war.

President Bush raised the stakes in October when he warned at a press conference that it could mean World War III if Iran gained nuclear weapons. For the press corps, still smarting from admitted lapses before the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the gauntlet was down.

Back then, many journalists reported in lockstep with White House statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda and his involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. All turned out to be wrong.

Only a handful of media organizations, most prominently Knight Ridder, consistently challenged the conventional wisdom that was pushing America to war (see Drop Cap, August/September 2004). Those stories often received minimal play and attracted little national attention. "Some of our own newspapers didn't use our stuff," says Jonathan S. Landay, at the time a national security and intelligence correspondent for Knight Ridder. (He now has the same job with McClatchy, which acquired Knight Ridder in 2006.) "It was extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing." Back then, Knight Ridder News Service was distributing the stories to the company's 32 newspapers across the country, as well as to other clients.

The New York Times and Washington Post published mea culpas about their deficient coverage, admitting mistakes were made. The media community entered a period of introspection. Some of the most glaring failures – the lack of skepticism, failure to verify information, lack of tough questions – were right out of Newsgathering 101.

Is history repeating itself with Iran?

"I was hearing a lot of the same language against Iran that I heard against Iraq – the arguments about WMDs, support for terrorism and abuse of human rights," says Barbara Slavin, who is now on leave from her position as senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today. "Those are exactly the same three issues the Bush administration used the first time." One major difference: "There are a lot more dissenting voices for us to quote this time. That makes it a bit easier for reporters," says Slavin, who has reported from Iran and is the author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." In the months before the Iraq war, only a handful of journalists sought out sources that questioned the powerful White House spin.

So far, reviews are mixed on how the media are helping Americans – and the rest of the world – sort out fact from propaganda regarding the Bush administration's charges that Iran is building a nuclear arsenal and supplying weapons to kill Americans in Iraq.

The waters were muddied on December 3 with the release of a National Intelligence Estimate stating that the Iranians had halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003 due to international pressure. Bush quickly went on the air to tell Americans, "The Iranian government has more to explain about its nuclear intentions and past actions." The NIE also reported that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium and could be capable of developing enough for a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015. The standoff was not over. On January 8, Bush accused Iran of carrying out a "provocative act" during a naval confrontation with the U.S. in the Strait of Hormuz, adding, "Iran is a threat, and Iran will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to learn how to enrich uranium."

Paul Pillar, formerly the CIA's top Middle East analyst, raised red flags about both the Bush administration's posture and the media's approach to it in a February 4, 2007, Washington Post opinion piece titled, "What to Ask Before the Next War." He noted that the debate over Iraq was largely reduced to "Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; Hussein supports terrorism; therefore, we must use force to remove Hussein." He added, "Now, an accelerating debate about Iran and its nuclear program shows signs of the same dangerous reductionism."

In an interview, Pillar pointed out that a neglected line of questioning has to do with the consequences of a U.S. strike or any other type of combat between the United States and Iran, even if it did not lead to a prolonged occupation. How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf?

"These are some of the major questions the media should be asking. This is the kind of information they should be pushing for," says the Georgetown University professor. Pillar warns the press not to allow proponents of military action to define the questions and manipulate the answers this time around.

Pillar fears "waking up one morning and learning that U.S. warplanes are headed back from Iran."

Dan Froomkin, deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project, has similar concerns. He worries that neoconservatives are getting their message out on attacking Iran largely unchallenged. On August 20, he posted a list of experts on the Middle East for journalists to turn to for different perspective and context. Paul Pillar was among them.

"It just killed me. The media still were quoting these people who got everything wrong the first time, and then, on top of everything else, we were making it sound like they're experts" on Iran, says Froomkin, who writes the "White House Watch" column for washingtonpost.com. "Obviously it is a very different narrative now because of the NIE report. But it's kind of pathetic that we had to wait for the intelligence establishment to say this... That's a story that journalists should have broken."

His advice to those covering the Iran beat: "Listen to and quote the people who got it right the last time: the intelligence officials, State Department officials, war college instructors and many others who predicted the problem we are now facing but who were largely ignored."

Before the invasion of Iraq, a barrage of presidential speeches, press briefings and declarations from power brokers like then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sparked a sense of frenzy in the nation. The media were not immune.

Correspondents rushed to boot camps for combat survival training. Media outlets vied to embed their reporters with military units that would lead the charge across the desert (see "Preparing for War," March 2003). The run-up to the invasion dominated TV news and the front pages of newspapers with few questions asked.

Iran offers a completely different scenario.

Rather than dominating the headlines and the airwaves, the story has ebbed and flowed. There are more dissenting voices in Congress and the intelligence community as well as among average Americans.

During 2007, Iran was dwarfed by the continuing debate over Iraq, even as tensions mounted over Tehran's purported nuclear buildup and meddling in the war in Iraq.

According to the News Coverage Index – which monitors 48 U.S.-based news organizations, including newspapers, broadcast and cable TV outlets, radio reports and Internet news sites – Iraq amassed about 8 percent of the year's total newshole, placing it second behind the presidential campaign. The conflict with Iran accounted for only 2 percent of the newshole last year. The coverage index is an initiative of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Tyndall Report, which monitors nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS, ranked Iraq the top story of 2007 by a wide margin. Iran came in 16th, receiving 106 minutes of airtime; Iraq commanded 1,157 minutes.

While television news was a driving force in helping to build a case for war with Iraq, "with Iran, precisely the opposite is happening," says Andrew Tyndall, who has been monitoring TV news for 20 years. "You get a spate of stuff and then it dies down. That allows journalists to get it into context. It allows them to be skeptical. You never had the breathing space to get back to scratch with Iraq... There was such an incredible volume of hype. It allowed no time to step back and put it in perspective."

The stark contrast in the historical moment could be another defining factor. With Iraq, Americans still were shell-shocked by the September 11 attacks; an exaggerated sense of patriotism gripped the nation. Some journalists believe the White House used that to its advantage, portraying those who questioned Bush's policies as unpatriotic.

"That was the prevailing mood of the times and that, I think, affected not only the media, which unfortunately it did, but also Congress and the public. People were by and large unquestioning of what was going on," says Los Angeles Times Foreign Editor Marjorie Miller. She cites several reports the newspaper published questioning the government's position before the invasion, but those, for the most part, were drowned out by the overwhelming rhetoric of the Bush camp, Miller says.

"You can only raise the questions so many times when there's no echo out there," she says. "You can't keep running the same story."

Before the invasion, Miller traveled to Baghdad to push for greater access for L.A. Times correspondents. Early in 2007, she made a similar trip to Tehran. Iran is being much more nuanced and sophisticated, she says. "They have taken reporters to the nuclear power plants; there is more debate within the Iranian government about whether or not to pursue nuclear weapons. Some of that debate seeps into the media. In Iraq, we had no access to go in and prove a negative."

Borzou Daragahi, the L.A. Times' Beirut-based Middle East correspondent, has the advantage of being a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran. He speaks fluent Farsi and has an easier time than most journalists crossing the border and operating out of an apartment in Tehran. That has allowed him to zero in on stories few others might spot. On New Year's Eve, just before guests arrived for a party, Daragahi talked about what he is seeing on his beat. A dramatic demographic transformation in Iran is one of the biggest stories of the day, says the former Times Baghdad bureau chief.

In 1960, Iran's birthrate was seven births per woman. According to World Bank statistics, that fell to 2.1 births in 2005, the same as the U.S. "It changes everything. They become middle class when they have two or three kids, and middle class people have different aspirations, goals and values," says Daragahi, who grew up in Chicago and New York.

"It means the country is becoming more urbanized; more people are moving into the city, moving into small apartments. [These people] don't want to go out in the street and get murdered and demonstrate and protest. They want to get a job with a computer company and make some dough. They become narcissistic, the same way Americans are. When you're looking at the future of Iran, this is a big story."

At times, Daragahi has been caught in the middle of the extreme politicization of the Iran issue. He describes getting hate mail from readers who accuse him of being a paid agent of Iranian mullahs and from those who say that he is a warmonger. "It has become very tough, very volatile and polarized," says Daragahi. "There are people out there hell bent on going to war with Iran."

A quick search of the Internet bears out the notion that there are more dissenting voices now than in 2003. Some, like CNN commentator Jack Cafferty, deliver feisty diatribes against the administration's Iran policy that instantly are picked up by bloggers and posted on YouTube.

In early December, after the release of the NIE report concluding that Iran had stopped its nuclear program years ago, Cafferty glowered into the camera: "We have got to look like the gang who couldn't shoot straight to the rest of the world. We've got a president pounding the desk saying Iran is going to start World War III, and then we have our own intelligence people saying, 'Hey, they gave that program up four years ago.' I mean, it's embarrassing..and it's shameful," he told viewers on "The Situation Room."

Last fall a heated exchange between neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz, a leading advocate of war with Iran, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, made a splash in the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

On October 29, Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek declaring that the discussion about Iran had lost all connection to reality. He singled out Podhoretz for writing that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler..a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it..with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism."

"Here is the reality," wrote Zakaria. "Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP [gross domestic product] that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet, we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"

Podhoretz returned fire on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." He accused Zakaria of "an irresponsible complacency that I think is comparable to the denial in the early '30s of the intentions of Hitler."

Rhetoric also heated up in the blogosphere. On December 7, NewsBusters.org, which says its mission is "exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias," took MSNBC host Keith Olbermann to task for denouncing Bush as a "pathological presidential liar or an idiot-in-chief" for continuing to talk about Iran's nuclear threat even after learning the weapons program had been suspended. During his show, "Countdown," Olbermann charged Bush with "cataclysmic deceptions on Iran."

On the flip side, Mediamatters.org, which says it is dedicated to "correcting conservative misinformation," posted comments from Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly about leveling cities like Tehran. During a December 2006 episode of his radio show, O'Reilly offered a hypothetical scenario that, he argued, would result in such an attack. "If Iran takes over Iraq and then fosters a revolution inside Saudi Arabia..and gets control of all the oil and says we're not selling to the USA, we are going to level that country, because you..need gasoline to live," O'Reilly told listeners.

More dispassionate criticism has focused on basic journalistic concerns, such as excessive use of anonymous sources. The New York Times and Washington Post have drawn fire in columns by Editor & Publisher Editor Greg Mitchell and from FAIR, a liberal media monitor that analyzes the news.

Mitchell titled a December 4 column "Debunking Iran's Nuclear Program: Another 'Intelligence Failure' – On the Part of the Press?" and cited examples from the Times and the Post that he views as evidence of biased coverage.

Some of the strongest criticism has been aimed at Michael R. Gordon, the Times' chief military correspondent, for using anonymous sources in stories that suggested Iran is supplying the deadliest weapon – "explosively formed penetrators" or EFPs – that are aimed at American troops in Iraq. In a February 10 column, Mitchell noted that Gordon, on his own or with former Times reporter Judith Miller (see "Miller Brouhaha," August/September 2003), had written some of the key misleading stories leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Also in February, FAIR posted a notice on its Web site (fair.org) that the New York Times was pushing the notion of a threat with a one-sided array of unnamed officials and violating the paper's own rules on anonymous sources. Gordon was singled out for his February 10 article titled "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says," which quoted anonymous administration sources, American intelligence and Western officials four times as often as named ones. Only one source in the report challenged official claims, according to FAIR.

"In the wake of its disastrous pre-war reporting on Iraq, the New York Times implemented new rules governing its use of unnamed sources. Its lead story on February 10, promoting Bush administration charges against Iran, violated those rules," FAIR said in a February 16 report.

On February 25, Byron Calame, then the Times' public editor, responded to a barrage of criticism the newspaper had received over Gordon's article. "Coverage of the American saber-rattling about Iranian intervention in Iraq posed an important test for The New York Times, given the paper's discredited pre-war articles about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And it has triggered a rash of complaints from readers who believed The Times was again serving as a megaphone for the White House," Calame wrote.

He noted the "Times' most important requirement for anonymous sources – that an editor must know their identity – was followed for Gordon's Feb. 10 piece." Calame added, "I do wish, however, that the article had found a way to comply with the paper's policy of explaining why sources are allowed to remain unnamed."

Gordon agrees that journalists, including himself, should have done a better job of reporting on Iraq prior to the war. But he also says that much of the criticism is off-target. "A lot of revisionism has gone on. People forget how many of the experts outside of government, who were critical of the Bush administration, held the view that Iraq had WMDs, including all the major think tanks and former Clinton administration officials," says Gordon, who days earlier had returned from Baghdad, where he spent much of 2007. "So, it wasn't a matter of being captive to government sources."

He maintains that, despite the criticism, the New York Times has shown extraordinary care in reporting the intelligence on Iran's influence inside Iraq and its role in providing weaponry. "All I can tell you, we talked to a multitude of people; we didn't rush into it. We asked all of the tough questions we could," Gordon says. "We held up the story and did a lot of extra reporting and satisfied ourselves that at least there was a firm evidentiary basis and intelligence for these assertions and assessments. I think the reporting has stood up, by the way... Most of the criticism has been ideological."

While the use of anonymous sources continues to be a sore spot, Gordon doesn't see a time when they will be eradicated. "Nor should they be," he says. "There are certain very sensitive stories that you can only report that way, including stories that expose corruption and misdeeds on the part of the American government. Anonymous sources have to be used with care, that's all. But it's not that you can dispense with them."

While many journalists uncritically accepted the Bush administration's case against Iraq, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau took a much more skeptical approach. When the New York Times apologized to readers on May 26, 2004, for not being "more aggressive" in its reporting in the pre-war era, editors gave a nod to Knight Ridder for its excellent work.

John Walcott was Knight Ridder's bureau chief back then; today he plays the same role for McClatchy, which took over the chain. How does Walcott see coverage of Iran vis-à-vis the ill-fated reporting on Iraq? "It is a good deal more tempered, but I still don't see enough hard questions being asked," he says. "I also don't see the sort of pseudo-patriotic beat of the drums of war, the enthusiasm for a foreign adventure that I saw in a lot of the press prior to Iraq. I don't see the same degree of cheerleading. I would hope [the media] have learned to act like reporters rather than stenographers."

Reporters, including McClatchy's Jonathan Landay and the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, cite the prowess of the Bush White House's powerful PR machine as a factor in shaping coverage. The administration is known to take a punitive stance toward reporters who go off message, and some journalists fear losing access to important sources, Landay says.

"I was bumped off foreign trips with the secretary of defense for three years, and Knight Ridder was denied travel with Vice President Cheney during the 2004 presidential campaign. Walcott received some angry phone calls from senior administration officials, and I had a couple of very unpleasant face-to-face meetings myself," Landay wrote in an e-mail interview.

In an article for the summer 2006 Nieman Reports, Pincus called for a "new kind of courage" in journalism in an age of "instant news, instant analysis and therefore instant opinion." He wrote that this is "a time of government by public relations and news stories based on prepared texts and prepared events or responses." He suggested that editors and reporters be brave enough not to cover statements by public officials that simply echo what they have said before.

"Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public," Pincus wrote.

During an interview, he talked about the dependency of journalists on a phalanx of ready-made experts and talking heads who regularly show up in newspaper accounts and on TV as credible sources. "It's become a business... We've developed an industry of people who sit there waiting to give glib quotes," Pincus says. The L.A. Times' Daragahi has similar concerns.

"A lot of people hooting and hollering about Iran don't know anything about the country. There are fundamental misunderstandings," says the correspondent, who strongly suggests avoiding sources with a political agenda. "Iran is a very complicated place; the challenges are so tough just to get inside. Sometimes it's all too easy just to rely on a cadre of so-called experts."

Daragahi made five trips to Iran last year. He found the country's political system to be "dynamic," a far cry from the quagmire in Baghdad. In a December 31 story, he wrote about Iran's inner and outer circles of influence and power, illuminating a side of its internal politics rarely glimpsed by outsiders.

His reporting dispelled the belief that the Shiite clergy tightly controls Iran's government. Instead, Daragahi explained in his story that he found that the clout of the clerics has "steadily eroded. Increasingly, power is distributed among combative elites within a delicate system of checks and balances defined by religious as well as civil law, personal relations and the rhythm of bureaucracy."

Like the dramatically decreasing birthrate, the splits within government speak to significant changes taking places inside Iran. "It's important for Americans to know this," he says.

The correspondent sees copy on Iran being treated with far more care than was the case with stories about pre-war Iraq. "With Iran coverage, the reporting goes through so many filters," he says. "No one wants to be in that situation ever again."

Senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchiardi@ iupui.edu) wrote about the Associated Press' foreign reporting operation in AJR's December/January issue.