The New York Times has rules about how and when to grant anonymity to sources. But the rules don’t seem to matter much.
Take a story in the paper (11/11/13) about the state of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “Iran Balked at Language of Draft Nuclear Deal, Western Diplomats Say,” is the headline over a story that looks to blame Iran for where things were left:
The Iranian government’s insistence on formal recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium emerged as a major obstacle, diplomats said Sunday.
The Times went on to make the case that the failure to reach a deal wasn’t France’s fault:
Many reports have ascribed the failure of the talks to France’s insistence that any agreement put tight restrictions on a heavy-water plant that Iran is building, which can produce plutonium.
But while France took a harder line than its partners on some issues, a senior American official said it was the Iranian delegation that balked at completing an interim agreement, saying that it had to engage in additional consultations in Tehran before proceeding further.
A senior American official who briefed Israeli reporters and experts in Jerusalem on Sunday said that the six world powers in the talks had approved a working document and presented it to the Iranians, according to Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post, who attended the briefing.
“It was too tough for them,” Mr. Keinon quoted the American official as saying of the Iranians. “They have to go back home, talk to their government and come back.”
So the Times is reporting on what anonymous officials apparently told other reporters? That is unusual.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Times fails to shed much light on the substance of the supposed disagreement–whether or not Iran has a right to enrich uranium for its nuclear program. The paper puts “right” in quotation marks, and includes expert voices such as this:
“The United States does not believe there is an inherent right to enrichment, and we have said that repeatedly to Iran,” a senior administration official said before the latest round of talks in Geneva.
It is indeed true that, anonymously or otherwise, the US and some other countries say Iran has no such right; many interpretations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement (NPT) say they do–see this letter to the Washington Post (10/23/13) from Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies , for instance.
For the record, other accounts suggest that Iran’s reticence was the result of a last-minute change, according to the Guardian‘s Julian Borger and Ian Traynor (11/11/13):
A meeting in a Geneva hotel room between John Kerry and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, led to an 11th-hour toughening of the Western position on Iran’s nuclear program that was unacceptable to Iranian negotiators, according to Western officials.
So that account makes it sound like it was less a matter of Iran rejecting a deal than the deal being changed to ensure Iran might be unwilling to say yes.
An interesting sidenote: The Times account is based on what an anonymous US official apparently told Israeli media. But then the Times drops this:
Wendy Sherman, the senior State Department official who heads the American delegation to the nuclear talks, flew to Israel on Sunday with a clear aim to influence Israeli public opinion, first with a session for Israeli diplomatic correspondents and then with a private dinner at the King David Hotel that included a prominent Israeli columnist, a leading Israeli television and radio anchor, and several researchers from the Institute for National Security Studies, which is affiliated with Tel Aviv University. She did not brief Jerusalem-based correspondents for American news organizations.
One might get the impression that the “senior American official” is Wendy Sherman.