Mar
01
2008

Perilous Journalism in the Persian Gulf

Strait of Hormuz incident's uncritical coverage

HMS Middleton in the Straight of Hormuz--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Defence Images

HMS Middleton in the Straight of Hormuz--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Defence Images

Given that one of the stated goals of George W. Bush's January 8-16 Mideast trip was to "remind" allies in the Persian Gulf that "Iran is a threat'' (New York Times, 1/9/08), it should have at least struck journalists as a strange coincidence when a January 6 encounter between the U.S. Navy and five small Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, was characterized by the Pentagon as "evidence that Iran is unpredictable and remains a threat" (CNN, 1/7/08).

Yet several news media outlets swallowed the White House's alarmist account of the incident hook, line and sinker. The Los Angeles Times (1/8/08) reported:

Officials said the boats came within 200 yards of the warships and radioed the Americans. "They said something like, 'I am coming at you and you will explode,'" a military official said. "That is overt aggression."

Corporate media sometimes reported official claims as fact. CNN's Kyra Philipps (CNN Newsroom, 1/7/08) summed up this "high drama in the high seas": "Five Iranian boats threaten three U.S. ships in international waters. One even radioed that the U.S. ship would soon explode."

NPR host Renee Montagne (Morning Edition, 1/8/08) reported that "a group of Iranian boats charged and threatened American warships on their way into the Persian Gulf." Meanwhile, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer reported (1/7/08), "The Iranians warned the ships they'd blow up, and then dropped boxes into the water."

The proof the media offered to support these claims was a Pentagon video, broadcast on all major TV networks, that depicted some small boats approaching a U.S. Navy ship. A radio transmission could be heard in which a voice made a threatening statement.

Following the White House line, the media represented the incident as a dramatic close call that could have led to a violent escalation. ABC News anchor Charles Gibson (1/8/08) reported that "President Bush called it a provocative act. And the Navy video would indicate that's something of an understatement." A New York Times editorial (1/9/08) chastised Iran for having "played a reckless and foolish game in the Strait of Hormuz this week that--except for American restraint--could have spun lethally out of control."

After Iran released its own video recording of the event--which showed a more routine exchange between the U.S. and Iranian vessels--the Pentagon distanced itself from the claim that the Iranian boats had issued a verbal threat. Three days after its original report citing unnamed officials who implied the threat had been issued from the boats, the L.A. Times (1/11/08) "clarified" that a key part of the official version of events was inaccurate: "Clarifying earlier accounts, officials said Thursday that they did not know whether a radio call in which a voice threatened to 'explode' the U.S. ships came from the small boats or whether it came from another source." Retreating from the account that definitely attributed the transmission to the speedboats, the officials now said only that "the radio threat was received at the same time as the encounter with the Iranian boats."

U.S. officials conceded that the Navy's video of the speedboats and the audio of the threat were discrete recordings that had been edited together. New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi (1/10/08) wrote:

Naval and Pentagon officials have said that the video and audio were recorded separately, then combined. On Wednesday, Pentagon officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak officially, said they were still trying to determine if the transmission came from the speedboats or elsewhere.

Navy warship crews and veterans interviewed by Navy Times (1/15/08) raised the possibility that the voice featured in the video was a maritime heckler, well-known to American ships operating in the Middle East, "who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps on the net shouting insults and epithets."

Moreover, the media's portrait of the Strait of Hormuz incident as a dramatic confrontation seemed to be contradicted by U.S. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff's response (Asia Times Online, 1/10/08) to a question about the potential damage these small boats could have caused: "[They had] neither anti-ship missiles nor torpedoes. And I wouldn't characterize the posture of the U.S. 5th Fleet as 'afraid' of these ships or these three U.S. ships 'afraid' of these small boats."

It seems that corporate journalists were, however, afraid to ask tough questions about a "crisis" that conveniently emerged on the eve of a critical diplomatic mission.