Distorting Iran’s nuke program

by Zachary Roth, Columbia Journalism Review

Yesterday, McClatchy’s excellent Washington bureau published a piece by Jonathan Landay noting that both John McCain and Barack Obama, in their campaign rhetoric, are exaggerating what we know about Iran’s nuclear program.

The candidates have both recently said flatly that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, while, as Landay points out, the U.S. intelligence community concluded last fall in a National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had halted its effort to acquire a bomb.

But the candidates don’t deserve all the blame here. It’s the press’s job to keep them honest every time they over-state what we know about Iran’s weapons program. And with the exception of McClatchy, it’s a job the press has been failing at, miserably.

Exhibit A: today’s Washington Post write-up of McCain’s speech to AIPAC yesterday. The Post reports that McCain laid out a strategy “aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon efforts to acquire nuclear weapons”—without ever noting that, in the view of the U.S. intelligence community, it did so five years ago.

The New York Times does little better. It reports: “The Obama campaign countered that … during the Bush administration, Iran had made gains with it’s nuclear program…”—again failing to let readers know about the intel community’s assessment.

Of course, no one’s arguing that Iran’s not a threat to be taken seriously. It’s possible that Iran has restarted its program since shuttering it in ’03. As McClatchy notes, “few experts … think that Iran has come clean about all its nuclear activities.” The point is, we just don’t know for sure. But the candidates are making it seem like we do. And the press needs to call them on it, especially as we head into the general election.

But this isn’t just about the presidential campaign. We launched one Middle East war this decade in part because politicians made claims about an adversary’s weapons capabilities that turned out to be wildly inflated—and the press, for the most part, went along. This time, the press has some pretty powerful evidence with which to challenge the candidates on the question of Iran’s nuclear program—the nation needs journalists to do just that.

article originally published at http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/distorting_irans_nuke_program.php?page=all.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey