PBS, NPR Try to Defend Iran Distortions

Evaluating reporting and commentary about Iran could be reduced to one simple rule: There is no evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon. Statements that suggest otherwise are misleading. Reports that fail to point this out are doing readers/viewers/listeners a disservice.

That sounds simple enough. But don’t tell that to the outlets that are being criticized over their Iran reporting.

Take NPR and PBS, both of which were singled out by the group Just Foreign Policy.

A few days ago (1/10/12), the FAIR Blog featured a post criticizing the PBS NewsHour for a deceptive report on Iran. The report introduced a quote from Pentagon chief Leon Panetta with this statement by PBS anchor Margaret Warner: “The Iranian government insists that its nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes only, an assertion disputed by the U.S. and its allies.”

Panetta’s quote immediately followed: “We know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon.” My point in that blog post was that right before he said this, Panetta had made a very candid admission about Iran, one that would no doubt be surprising to most corporate news consumers: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”

The fact that the NewsHour would clip this statement from his soundbite was troubling. PBS ombud Michael Getler responded (1/12/12) by agreeing that we had a point:

I think FAIR makes a good journalistic catch in calling attention to the fuller quote by Panetta on CBS. It was a very brief and clear statement by the Defense secretary on an important point about whether Iran is actually developing a nuclear weapon.

And NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor Mike Mosettig editor agrees that “it would have been better had we not lopped off the first part of the Panetta quote.”

But Getler thinks it was unfair to to call the PBS edit “dishonest,” and he explains why:

The logical understanding that NewsHour viewers–and anyone who has been following this subject–would draw from the portion of the Panetta quote that was used is that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon but that they are developing a “nuclear capability” and that the U.S. warning, as Panetta expressed it, is not to cross “our red line” and actually develop a weapon.

So viewers who are paying close attention to Iran coverage (and who are hopefully tuning out the rhetoric coming from many of the Republican presidential candidates) would know that when Panetta was saying, “We know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability,” he meant that they were not trying to develop a nuclear weapon–even though the program had edited out his very straightforward explanation of what is actually known about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

This is a curious argument. One of the things that made Panetta’s comment so revealing was that it represented a break from the usual chatter about Iran–even within the Obama administration. That’s precisely what made it newsworthy. PBS seems to think its viewers should have to read between the lines in order to arrive at the accurate assessment about Iran’s nuclear program they left on the cutting room floor.

Now to NPR.

The criticism of Robert Naiman and Just Foreign Policy centered on NPR reporter Tom Gjelten’s statement that “the goal for the U.S. and its allies…[is] to convince Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program.” The suggestion, it would seem, is that Iran is indeed pursuing such weapons.

But NPR ombud Edward Schumacher-Matos (1/13/12) sees it exactly the other way around. He writes:

The story didn’t say or imply that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. As Bruce Auster, the senior editor for national security, notes, “The story was about how the sanctions are designed to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons program, which automatically suggests it may not have one.”

Does NPR really think that the best way to inform its listeners is to assume that when people hear a report about forcing Iran to “give up a nuclear weapons program,” these listeners should fill in the blanks themselves so as to arrive at an entirely different meaning? That every time you hear something about Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” that is really code for “the-nuclear-weapons-program-that-may not exist-since-there-is-no-evidence-that-it-exists”? That’d be an unusual burden to place on listeners.

For good measure, the ombud throws in another defense of the NPR report by pointing out that the “quote carefully refers to ‘a’ program–using the indefinite article–and not the definite ‘its’ or ‘the’ program.” Again, NPR listeners: If you hear one of the reporters use the word “a,” remember that could be a reference to something that doesn’t exist. Got it?

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.