Lessons from the Trump–Iran news cycle

Last Wednesday—amid mounting skepticism of the Trump administration’s claim that it decided to kill Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top general, to avert an “imminent” attack on US interests—US officials finally briefed members of Congress on the intelligence that led to the strike. At least, they were supposed to. According to one lawmaker who was present, the intel the administration shared “was no more secret than what could be found on Wikipedia”; Mike Lee, a Republican senator for Utah (and close ally of Trump), called the briefing “insulting and demeaning” and “probably the worst” he’s seen on a military matter. Rand Paul, also a Republican senator, said he didn’t learn anything “that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already.”

On Friday, Trump updated his rationale for the strike. He did so via the media, not to Congress. In a sit-down interview hosted (of course) by Fox News, Laura Ingraham asked the president if the American people didn’t have a right to know what infrastructure Suleimani had been planning to target; Trump said they didn’t, but continued that “probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad.” Pressed again by Ingraham, he then dropped what sounded like a bombshell: “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.”

Related: A guide to navigating the Trump-Iran story

Trump’s answer demanded so many follow-up questions. (Chief among them: Is this actually true? and If so, why can you tell Fox but not Congress?) Ingraham didn’t ask them, but as the weekend progressed, other journalists did. Yesterday, Mark Esper, the defense secretary, and Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, shared the job of defending Trump’s “four embassies” claim on the Sunday shows. As was the case with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s five-show tour last weekend, Esper and O’Brien’s answers were repetitive, and repeatedly unsatisfactory. On Jake Tapper’s CNN show, Esper was slippery—Trump “said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region; I believe that as well,” Esper said. On Margaret Brennan’s CBS show, he appeared to slip up. “The president didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence,” Esper said. “Are you saying there wasn’t one?” Brennan asked; “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper replied. He continued that he shared the president’s “expectation” about a threat to embassies; still, his remark drove a critical news cycle yesterday, at one point topping the homepages of both the Times and the Post. (In print this morning, the Times says: “NARRATIVE SHIFTS AGAIN.”)

Trump’s interview with Ingraham was a shot in the arm for the Iran news cycle; it otherwise may have started to stall over the weekend amid an apparent de-escalation of tensions between DC and Tehran. The threat of conflagration remains very high, and there are still pressing strands of this story to unspool—not least Iran’s belated admission, on Saturday, that its military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, and the reaction to that news inside the country. Still, barring some sudden madness, we can probably expect Iran to slip down the news cycle this week. The Iowa caucuses are looming, as is Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. (As I wrote last week, the Iran and impeachment stories are intimately linked, but in the Trump era, thoughtful synthesis doesn’t always seem to be a top priority for the press.)

Before all that happens, it’s worth reflecting on the arc the Iran story has traced since the US killed Suleimani 10 days ago. Across that period, deep-rooted problems with our coverage of Iran, in particular, and war, in general, have come to the fore again. As Margaret Sullivan wrote for the Post last week, TV news still prioritizes bellicose voices over anti-war ones; as Andrew Lee Butters wrote for CJR, Iran coverage, on the whole, is still loaded with tropes that ignore the country’s complicated history, and elide the full extent of American meddling in it. (Interestingly, Tapper asked Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer yesterday whether Steyer traces the current conflict with Iran to the CIA-backed coup that deposed Iran’s then prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. Sadly, the exchange didn’t really lead anywhere.) A big part of the problem is the relative lack of Iranian voices in our coverage. As H.A. Hellyer wrote for Foreign Policy, US media should look beyond just serving audiences at home. “The consequences of narrow Western thinking,” he wrote, are stark. “Like it or not, the West in general, and the United States in particular, has far more power in the Arab world than vice versa.”

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Nonetheless, within the boundaries of such ossified assumptions about the US and Iran, coverage of recent tensions does seem to have exhibited a healthier skepticism than we’ve sometimes seen in the past. The specter of the media cheerleading that marked the march to war with Iraq has loomed large, often explicitly. Hard questions have been asked of US policymakers and their shifting rationale for killing Suleimani, not least this past weekend. And our sense of alarm, on the whole, has felt necessary. Yes, there was much uninformed Twitter panic, especially in the immediate, uncertain aftermath of the Suleimani strike. But this looked, for several days, like the sort of dangerous escalation we long feared we’d see under Trump. Taking it seriously—and challenging his administration’s dire informational record in the process—was a bare minimum.

A big challenge, going forward, will be to apply at least this level of attention and skepticism to future administrations when lives are in the balance. The Trump administration’s routine dishonesty has put many in the media on high alert. But governments of all stripes routinely lie about war, as the Post’s Afghanistan Papers project very recently reminded us. The Trump era has taught us a number of useful lessons about our coverage. Those lessons need to endure.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.