The Faulty Assumption Behind Bad Reporting on Iran

The Washington Post (8/17/12) has a story on Iran and the threat of war that begins with this:

Preparations in Israel for a possible war are focusing new attention on whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and forcing an unwelcome debate in the thick of a presidential campaign about the U.S. role in stopping an Iranian bomb.

The article, by Anne Gearan and Karin Brulliard, repeats the same assumption a number of times–Iran is after a nuclear weapon:

Some say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing in hopes of forcing President Obama to issue an ultimatum to Iran that America would do the job itself later. Although Obama has declared flatly that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, analysts suggest that Netanyahu is looking for a deadline on abandoning talks and resorting to military action….

Obama has already issued the strongest U.S. threat against Iran to date, declaring that the United States will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon and ruling out a policy of containment. He has vowed to use “all options” if need be, but he has not set a deadline….

The United States opposes a unilateral Israeli strike now, arguing that there is still time for sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran not to build a nuclear weapon.

And then, in the very last paragraph of the story, readers are told:

Since its nuclear program was exposed a decade ago, Iran has claimed that its objective is to produce electricity, not weapons. But the United States and its allies have maintained that the real goal is the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.

This assumption–that Iran is pursuing a weapon–is what appears to be guiding the entire crisis, and is the apparent basis for the ever-tightening sanctions that the West has put into place against Iran.

But Iran has consistently stated that it is not pursuing any such weapons program, and no evidence has emerged to substantiate the claim that they are in fact building a weapons program. Indeed, on several occasions, U.S. officials have acknowledged that they have no evidence that Iran is pursuing a weapon.

The group Just Foreign Policy flagged the Washington Post last year for a deceptive photo gallery that made a similar assertion:

The Post changed that erroneous headline, acknowledging the fact that the claim that Iran is pursuing weapons is precisely that–a claim.

But too much reporting treats those claims as the facts to be assumed, as more powerful nations mull over plans to attack Iran, based on a case they have not yet been able to substantiate.  Imagine what reporting would look like if skepticism were applied evenly.

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.