There have been recent discussions (e.g., New York Times, 9/29/09) about whether the press is doing a better job covering allegations about Iran’s nuclear program than they did during the run-up to the Iraq War. But in some crucial and very basic ways, many in the media are performing just as poorly as they did in 2002 and 2003.
The core concern is whether Iran’s nuclear enrichment is intended for weapons. Pundits and reporters seem to think they have the answer.
“As if Afghanistan were not enough, now there’s Iran’s move to get nuclear weapons,” declared NBC‘s Chris Matthews (10/4/09). “Iran–will talks push that country to give up its nuclear weapons program?” wondered Meet the Press host David Gregory (NBC, 10/4/09). ABC‘s Good Morning America host Bill Weir (9/26/09) put it this way: “This morning, line in the sand. President Obama and a united front of world leaders charge Iran with secretly building nuclear weapons.”
And Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly explained (9/25/09): “All hell breaking loose as a new nuclear weapons facility is discovered in Iran, proving the mullahs have been lying for years.” He added: “Iran’s nuclear weapons program has now reached critical mass. And worldwide conflict is very possible. Friday, President Obama, British Prime Minister Brown and French President Sarkozy revealed a secret nuclear weapons facility located inside Iran.”
But there is no firm intelligence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran has long insisted that is not their goal, and U.S intelligence reached the conclusion in 2007 that Iran’s weapons program ended in 2003 (Extra!, 3-4/08). Contrary to the assertions from some pundits, the U.S., British and French governments did not “discover” a weapons facility in Iran last month; rather, Iran itself disclosed a site, not yet operational, that it said would be used to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes (Inter Press Service, 9/29/09). Enrichment of nuclear fuel is not the same as developing nuclear weapons, but many in the media seemed happy to blur the distinction in the public debate–as with the New York Daily News editorial (9/27/09) that described “the explosive revelation that the Islamic Republic has been hard at work on a secret underground atomic bomb facility.”
Of course, Iran’s denials that it is pursuing nuclear weapons should also be treated with skepticism. But Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen showed the wrong way to do this when he wrote (9/29/09), “These Persians lie like a rug.” One would think a guy who claimed that “only a fool–or possibly a Frenchman” could dispute Colin Powell’s United Nations presentation in February 2003 might have learned by now to avoid such slurs.
On February 4, 2003, FAIR released a Media Advisory headlined “Iraq’s Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact,” which pointed out that media were treating the weapons Iraq was accused of having as though they definitely existed; as it turned out, of course, they were imaginary. If corporate media wish to convince us that they learned a lesson from their Iraq War failures, they have a strange way of showing it.