US–Iran coverage is still not skeptical enough

With every day that passes, the drumbeat of war echoes a little more loudly through our media. Yesterday, officials in Iran said that the country will soon have produced and stockpiled more low-enriched uranium—of the type used in power plants—than it is permitted to possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US ditched last year. In Washington, the Trump administration moved to dispatch 1,000 American troops to the Middle East, adding to the 1,500-strong deployment it sent last month. Tensions between the US and Iran, we are told, are rising.

Left-wing observers have long complained that American outlets’ coverage of hostile foreign governments—certainly in the Middle East, and particularly in Iran—tends to parrot the line of the US government, however bellicose, without applying due skepticism. How has the latest Iran coverage shaped up? It’s hard to generalize, of course. But the Trump era writ large has brought out the skeptical side in many reporters, and it seems that some of them have applied it to the Iran story. Late last week and over the weekend, reporters repeatedly raised doubts as to Trump’s credibility in connection with his administration’s claim that Iran attacked two oil tankers (neither of which are American) in the Gulf of Oman. (Iran denies this.) The purported evidence—a video appearing to show Iranian soldiers removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers—was called into question by the owner of one of the ships and the German foreign minister, among others, and so interviewers asked US officials to show more proof. “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “The world will come to see much of it.”

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Yesterday, the Trump administration declassified images it says back up its case that Iran was behind the tanker attacks. Many outlets relayed administration claims about the images in headlines; in a tweet, Politico said that, per the Pentagon, “the images provide ironclad evidence Iran was responsible.” The third paragraph of Politico’s linked story, however, notes that “nothing in the photos or accompanying documents reveal evidence of the placement of the magnetic mines on the ship.” Hardly “ironclad,” then. Last night, in an article for Task & Purpose, a military news site, Jeff Schogol argued that “not a single US official has provided a shred of proof linking Iran to the explosive devices found on the merchant ships.” Without air-tight evidence, news outlets really should not air administration claims without a heavy dose of context. “Pompeo/Bolton/Shanahan said” is not enough.

Again, it’s hard to generalize, but US coverage of the latest Iran episode seems to be falling into some old, bad habits. In recent coverage, “the media has generally been better at treating unproven accusations by the Trump administration as just that—accusations, and not facts,” Trita Parsi, a researcher and founder of the National Iranian American Council, told me last night in an email. “Yet, on numerous occasions, there has either been a failure to push back against blatantly false assertions by Trump officials, or Trump accusations have been presented as proven facts.” The problem is especially acute in headlines and tweets, Parsi notes.

As Andrew Lee Butters wrote in a recent piece for CJR, “a dynamic has developed in Iran reporting, a kind of paranoid feeding frenzy, that helps anti-Iran Trump administration hardliners like John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, build momentum for confrontation.” Butters’s point that US outlets often characterize Iran as “threatening” to resume nuclear production—even though the country has thus far abided by a deal that the US decided to break—echoes in coverage this morning. “There are also cases in which Trump’s violation of the [deal] is solely presented as a ‘withdrawal,’ while Iran’s threat of reducing its adherence to the deal is (correctly) presented as a ‘violation,’” Parsi told me.

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It’s welcome if Trump’s role has brought a dash more skepticism to coverage of US–Iran relations, but the traditional problems with this coverage run much deeper than Trump. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Iran is too often framed as a menacing, unilateral aggressor whose actions necessitate a strong American response. The truth is a whole lot more complicated.

Below, more on coverage of the US and Iran:

  • “Bomb Iran”: The name of John Bolton was buried in some articles about the latest US troop movements and entirely absent from others despite his hawkish views on Iran being well known. Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes went a different route: the words “BOLTON’S WAR” were displayed as a backdrop as Hayes began a segment on Iran. Last month, Dexter Filkins had an insightful profile of Bolton for The New Yorker.
  • A dangerous feedback loop: Matt Gertz writes, for Media Matters for America, that Trump’s propensity to listen to Fox News talking points could have disastrous consequences when it comes to Iran. (Yesterday, Trump tweeted the exact wording of a chyron that had just appeared on Fox.) Several figures on the network have advocated a military escalation with Iran, arguing that the country “only responds to strength.”
  • Doing better: Writing for The Intercept last month, Mehdi Hasan outlined “four simple steps the US media could take to prevent a Trump war with Iran.” Reporters, Hasan argues, should stop passing on official claims without checking them, diversify their sourcing, and build historical context about US–Iran relations into their reporting.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday morning, a heavily armed gunman started shooting outside a federal courts building in Dallas. Tom Fox, a photojournalist at the Dallas Morning News, was at the courthouse for a routine assignment and captured an extraordinary image of the shooter before taking cover. “You use the camera almost as a shield,” Fox told the Morning News. “I also felt a journalistic duty to do all that.” The gunman—who was killed in an exchange of fire with police—was the only casualty. Echoing other recent shootings, his Facebook page contained vague warnings of an attack alongside far-right conspiracy theories and memes, NBC’s Elisha Fieldstadt, Brandy Zadrozny, and Ben Collins report.
  • Yesterday afternoon, BuzzFeed staffers in New York, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco walked off the job to protest management’s failure to recognize their unionization efforts. Executives say they already made an offer of recognition; workers say that that offer would limit union membership by exempting certain job titles. Employees in BuzzFeed’s New York office held a protest on the sidewalk. CJR’s Andrew McCormick went to check it out. “We want to focus on the work,” Davey Alba, a BuzzFeed technology reporter and union organizer, told him.
  • Last month, Authentic Brands Group, a marketing company, acquired Sports Illustrated in an “unusual partnership”: Authentic Brand Groups would license SI’s brand and content while Meredith, the magazine’s previous owner, would continue to handle editorial output. Now, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports, Meredith is all but out of the picture. Authentic Brands Group licensed SI’s print and digital publishing rights to The Maven—a startup linked to Ross Levinsohn, a former tronc/Tribune executive trailed by allegations of sexual harassment, who will now take charge of SI’s editorial output.
  • In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote that Trump may have granted access to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a bid to reach out beyond his base ahead of his formal 2020 campaign launch tonight. If that was Trump’s goal, he’ll be disappointed with the ratings: Politico’s Caitlin Oprysko reports that the full interview came in third in its timeslot on Sunday night, way down on Celebrity Family Feud, which held the same slot last week.
  • Matt Pearce, who is covering the 2020 campaign for the LA Times, published a story about Jay Inslee, the Washington governor whose push for the Democratic nomination is centered on climate change. Pearce chose the topic after his readers told him, in a survey, that they wanted climate change to feature prominently in his coverage. Pearce’s strategy echoes the “citizens agenda” approach—advocated by NYU Professor Jay Rosen—encouraging reporters to cover issues that matter to the community they serve.
  • The New Yorker’s Paige Williams, who profiled Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year, takes a fresh look at Sanders as she prepares to stand down as White House press secretary. “While critics assail Sanders for peddling lies and denigrating the press during televised briefings, many of the White House reporters who consistently interact with her have described her to me as decent and honest in private,” Williams writes. “I would say that they ‘liked’ her, if likability, as it relates to women, weren’t such a loaded term.”
  • For CJR, Adrian Glass-Moore reports on aggressive efforts by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority to push back on stories—including in a student-run newspaper—about plans to inject private money into public housing. In particular, city housing officials objected to use of the word “privatization”; one called it “a highly charged trigger word that is frequently weaponized in debates about affordable housing.” In response to the pressure, several news organizations made changes to published articles.
  • And the defamation case brought by families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims against Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who called the shooting a hoax, took a strange turn after lawyers for the families said they found child pornography in files handed over by Jones. Jones’s lawyer says the images were sent to Jones in emails that he never opened; Jones, on his web show, accused a lawyer for the families of trying to frame him and pound[ed] on a picture of the lawyer’s face. Today, a court will hear a motion that Jones publicly threatened the lawyer. Confused? The AP has much more.

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