Getting independent, skeptical coverage of official claims about Iran—from its supposed nuclear weapons program (Extra!, 9-10/05, 1/12) to its alleged plans to launch terrorist attacks across the world (Extra!, 3/12)—is essential. One place you might expect to see more critical coverage is on supposedly left-leaning MSNBC. But when it comes to Iran, in what little coverage it offers the channel largely mirrors the Democratic Party line.
For the most part, it was hard to find Iran on MSNBC. From January to April, two of MSNBC’s stars, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, brought it up only 16 and 14 times, respectively. Their Fox competitors Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, by comparison, mentioned Iran significantly more often, at 55 and 58 times each, respectively.
MSNBC’s Iran coverage was strikingly elastic, depending on the official position of the Democratic Party. For instance, when the Obama administration and Israeli politicians began escalating their war rhetoric, Matthews (2/6/12) casually suggested a preemptive war of aggression against Iran: “I always want to ask one question: Is there something worse than Iran having nuclear weapons? Think about that. And if there isn’t anything worse, strike ‘em.”
Once Democratic President Barack Obama had admonished the GOP presidential candidates for their hawkish language towards Iran, lecturing them that “this is not a game” (CBS, 3/6/12), Matthews (4/27/12) changed his tune, saying neoconservatives “always have a war they want to fight.” He went on to characterize neoconservatives as “always pushing. They always want to push us to another war over there.”
Rachel Maddow’s positions are more nuanced, but hardly more critical. When she covers Iran, which is not often, it’s typically through the lens of Iran-as-aggressor. On April 24, Maddow said,
Iran, of course, is under intense international pressure because of its nuclear program, which Iran insists is just for nuclear [energy], and which the rest of the world insists is for nuclear bombs.
While the hawks might scream louder, even some Israeli and U.S. officials cast doubt on an Iranian bomb project. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Ha’aretz (4/25/12) that he didn’t believe Iran would build a bomb, echoing former U.N. Weapons Inspector Hans Blix (New Statesman, 2/15/12). Pentagon Secretary Leon Panetta, asked about Iran’s nuclear program on Face the Nation (1/8/12), responded: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”
On the same April 24 program, Maddow reported on a computer virus, likely originating in Israel or the United States, that took Iran’s Oil Ministry servers offline (MSNBC.com, 4/23/12)—similar to 2010’s Stuxnet virus that affected an Iranian nuclear reactor. Maddow, to her credit, questioned whether the virus constituted an “act of war.” But the discussion that followed, with former U.S. counterintelligence chief Richard Clarke, focused entirely on the efficacy of this potential act of war, and whether the U.S. retains military superiority in the cybernetic realm.
This kind of coverage shouldn’t be surprising from a self-described “national security liberal” (New York Times, 7/17/08). Maddow is representative of a growing trend of hawkish liberals that have emerged in the Obama presidency. A previous Extra! study (5/11) of Maddow’s coverage of the Afghan War found that while edging at times close to a withdrawal position, she relied most heavily on military sources, followed by journalists and then government officials. With that kind of Rolodex, it’s not terribly surprising that Maddow’s coverage of Iran would fairly closely reflect the administration’s line.
To the extent that Iran shows up on Ed Schultz’s Ed Show, it’s simply as a tool to attack Republicans and praise the Obama administration. On April 30 and May 1, on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Schultz brought up Iran not in reference to current threats of war, but to contrast Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 hostage rescue attempt with Obama’s successful operation.
On February 8, Schultz mentioned Iran to criticize Santorum’s ultra-hawkish position at the time, and on March 7, Schultz said, “It’s just outrageous how the GOP just can’t get enough of dropping bombs.” On the Ed Show, it’s acceptable to question aggression directed at Iran—as long as it’s coming from the GOP.
Not all the coverage has been so one-sided. One exception was the February 5 broadcast of Up With Chris Hayes, where guest Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! compared the case against Iran to the WMD falsehoods that led to the Iraq invasion.
Meanwhile, on Current—sometimes viewed as MSNBC’s rival for the left-of-center TV audience—former MSNBC host Cenk Uygur has taken a more directly skeptical approach, most recently (2/14/12) featuring Salon’s Glenn Greenwald to talk about media coverage of Iran.
When Uygur was let go from MSNBC, he claimed network executives were concerned about, among other things, his “tone” (Extra!, 11/11). The channel’s current left-leaning line up thoroughly dissects misleading conservative pundits and politicians. But they remain quiet about a major story that cries out for a similarly tough approach.
John Knefel, a former FAIR intern, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and the co-host of Radio Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @johnknefel. Josmar Trujillo is a FAIR intern, student and community activist in Queens.