Dec
03
2010

NYT's Iran Missiles Walkback

Paper discovers reasons for skepticism

Certain editions of the New York Times (12/3/10) published today an update to its reporting on Iranian weapons with a much more skeptical tone than its original article.

The first article (11/29/10), headlined "Iran Fortifies Its Missilies With the Aid of North Korea," presented the case in definitive terms: Iran now possesses powerful missiles with "the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe." As a FAIR Action Alert noted (12/1/10), the evidence to back this up was thin.

And the paper decided, "at the request of the Obama administration," not to publish the WikiLeaks cable that was the basis of the report. The cable was posted by WikiLeaks, though, which gave enterprising readers a chance to see the actual ambiguity of the evidence for themselves.

The Washington Post produced a December 1 story that cast considerable doubt on the U.S. allegations, pointing out that the evidence U.S. officials cited in the cable amounted to a German newspaper article that did not corroborate the U.S. claims.

So today's Times report, "Wider Window Into Iran's Missile Capabilities Offers a Murkier View," represents a significant climbdown--and a disingenuous one at that. The piece calls the Iran allegations "one of the most provocative assertions to emerge from the WikiLeaks cache," before acknowledging that "a review of a dozen other State Department cables made available by WikiLeaks and interviews with American government officials offer a murkier picture of Iran's missile capabilities."

The Times today suggests that the cables "can be glimpses of the American government's views, sometimes reflecting only part of the story, rather than concrete assertions of fact." But as FAIR and others have pointed out, the original cable in question would seem to have provided plenty of reasons to be skeptical. And it's unclear why the Times would discover only today that U.S. government claims are just that, and not "concrete assertions of fact."

Today's report includes perspectives from various government experts and outside analysts, who offer differing views on the alleged missiles. Their conclusions vary, but what is abundantly clear is that the Times' original report was fundamentally flawed, and it led many other outlets to treat this new Iranian threat as a fact. Charlie Rose on November 30, for example, stated: "Iran, the cables reveal, has obtained from North Korea 19 advanced missiles capable of striking cities in Western Europe."

The New York Times owes its readers, and the rest of the media, an editor's note or correction acknowledging and explaining the problems with their November 29 report. Readers who wish to make this case should contact Times public editor Arthur Brisbane (public@nytimes.com).