With reports of Iran-war drums beating, how will the media react this time around?
Seymour Hersh’s April 17 New Yorker article, which reported that a “messianic” Bush White House was contemplating regime change and tactical nuclear strikes to preempt Iran’s bomb-building program, landed with its own explosive power two weeks ago.
The stunning revelations — which may have inadvertently exaggerated fears about Iran’s nuclear program — put the issue back in the headlines and triggered a confusing scramble to determine how much time the U.S. has to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. A Washington Post editorial cited an estimate as short as three years down the road. A Bloomberg story quoted a State Department official as saying Iran could make enough enriched uranium for a nuke in 16 days.
But on April 13, a front-page article in The New York Times cited the view of “western nuclear analysts” that Iran is years away — perhaps even more than a decade away — from being able to produce nuclear weapons. It was a story whose symbolic meaning may have outstripped its journalistic value.
On one level, the Times story seemed timed to cool a dramatic onset of war jitters. But it may also have sent a crucial message about how — in the wake of their haunting failure to examine the administration’s rationale for the war in Iraq — the mainstream media will treat another effort to push military action against a second Middle-Eastern country on the grounds that it will soon possess WMD.
The run-up to the 2003 Iraq war did major damage to the reputation and credibility of the Times. Ultimately, the paper offered its readers a formal mea culpa for its failure to scrutinize dubious claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMD and saw one of its stars — reporter Judith Miller — discredited for her role in hyping those claims.
On April 13, the paper seemed to be signaling that it, and perhaps the rest of the media, would treat a run-up to war with Iran with the kind of aggression and skepticism that was missing three years ago.
Walter Shapiro, Washington bureau chief for Salon, acknowledges that if Iran is now in the crosshairs, chastened journalists may skip skeptical and head directly for cynical.
| “I think both the military and to some extent the media ... tend to fight the previous war.”
- James Crawley
“We make a mistake and then we totally overcompensate for it,” he says, adding that in the case of Iran, “they would literally have to test a weapon to dampen the `media` skepticism about the threat.”
Sig Christenson, president of the Military Reporters and Editors association, adds: “What I pray is we all get our feet on the ground and have a serious debate — and not have this insane war fever we had last time around.”
“I think both the military and to some extent the media ... tend to fight the previous war,” says James Crawley, vice-president of MRE.
In fact, the developing situation with Iran differs in crucial ways from the Iraq conflict. For one thing, Iranian leaders are touting, not denying, their interest in nuclear technology. For another, the country has the kind of coherent national identity and strategic resources that Iraq lacked. It’s also possible that Iran’s theocratic leadership, considered out of touch with much of the populace, may be less pragmatic, more unpredictable, and more dangerous than Hussein.
Despite those differences, it will be hard for the media to forget the mistakes of the previous war.
Aside from the Times’ May 2004 note to readers, outlets such as the Washington Post and the New Republic also admitted failure in not vetting more closely the Bush administration’s rationale for war.
That collective sense of guilt and failure — combined with a determination, as the Who once put it, that we don’t get fooled again — is bound to influence the tenor of coverage if the prospect of conflict with Iran grows.
Shapiro recalls a column he wrote for USA Today basically lauding the job done by former Secretary of State Colin Powell during his February 2003 speech to the U.N. making the case that Iraq had WMD. (Powell himself later called that presentation a “blot” on his record.”) “I feel embarrassed by `that column`,” Shapiro admits now. “I think there is such a level of feeling burned `on the part of the press`.”
Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, & Public Policy, says that several major factors have changed, making it considerably more difficult for the White House to convince the public of the need for a war with Iran.
“I think there are three particular groups that are extremely skeptical,” he says. “The first is the media itself.” The second is “the Democratic Party and the Congress,” but “the real joker in the deck is the clear unhappiness of the military.” (In recent weeks, a number of retired generals have taken the extraordinary step of going public with their misgivings about the competence of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.)
If journalists are only as good as their sources, as Jones notes, this time they may not be hamstrung by the lack of vocal, organized opposition in Washington that defined the political environment in the days before the invasion of Iraq.
One other element likely to embolden the media is the president’s political weakness. A batch of new polls show his Iraq-policy-approval numbers languishing in the 30s — a big factor in driving his overall job-approval ratings to new lows. “The different mood is that people don’t believe the president anymore,” says Christenson. “That’s the dynamic that has changed.”
None of this, however, means that more skeptical coverage will present an insurmountable obstacle to a march toward conflict with Iran by an administration that has displayed a proclivity to marginalize the press and an unwillingness to acknowledge weakness or errors.
For one thing, such loyal and influential Bush media allies as talk radio, the Fox News Channel, and conservative (particularly neoconservative) periodicals can be counted on to make the case for war, if necessary. Writing in the April 24 Weekly Standard, William Kristol mentioned the situation with Iran in the same breath as Hitler’s Germany, before counseling “serious preparation for possible military action.”
And if war fever really takes hold, the news industry will quickly shift from the task of examining the justification for that policy to focusing on the daunting logistics of covering the impending carnage.
Danny Schechter, who, in his 2004 documentary WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, attacked TV news for treating the war in Iraq as a ratings and revenue windfall, remains unconvinced that things have changed all that much in three years.
“Iran is easily demonized, `and` it seems the Fox Newses of the world are still framing the issue,” he says. “I don’t feel the media coverage is any better.”