Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Debate

Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Debate


by Stephen M Walt

Foreign Policy – I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.

The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again.

Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing.

Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.

#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article inThe Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.

#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both theTimes' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.

#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini — who does make the key decisions — has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.

#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.

#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.

#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclearweapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.

#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.

#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:

"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program – that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."

Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.

In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:

Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies – Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."

Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States…"

Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.

Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).

9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.

10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.

I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.

Source: Foreign Policy

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as master of the social science collegiate division and deputy dean of social sciences.

He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also been a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.


Professor Walt is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W. W. Norton, 2005), and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

He presently serves as faculty chair of the international security program at the Belfer Center for Science and international affairs and as co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security. He is also a member of the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and coeditor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. He was elected as a fellow in the American academy of arts and sciences in May 2005.


  1. It makes one wonder how the Ambassador for Israel, an American as well, could spout such obvious lies and hardly be challenged on any of them. Such is the parlous state of the truth in the US nowadays, unlikely to improve in my lifetime. Now we have an underwear bomber, the charade that was the theatre of bin Laden's staged killing,which  followed a shoe bomber, which followed.the unresolved destruction of WTC 7. 


    Then  if you are bored, have a look at the tenants of building 7, all of whom escaped, the insurance deal just months before, the payout to Silverstein and on it goes. Hans Christian Anderson is alive and well in America and working for the CIA, or  the FBI, a once respected organisation; the Congress and its subservience to AIPAC, the Israeli attack dog or The Senate, compromised beyond belief.  


    You lost your virtue when you bombed iraq, America, when your Congress cheered on the declaration of a war  and you have been sliding downhill ever since. It is certainly getting harder to remember what a respected country you used to be. Not any more though.

    • A futile gesture on my part, sending a comment to Fox News, but….


      Sent this comment to Fox News on their program:


      "To whom it may concern:

      I happened to see this interview while waiting for a flight in Memphis, and I was appalled at the misrepresentation of events in and around Iran by Bolton, and even more so by your reporter's allowing them to go unchallenged. Now, I understand that the ownership of Fox News would never tolerate any criticism of Israel. But we are looking here at a replay of the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs on a grander and more destructive scale by the same collection of neo-conservative "chicken hawks," not one of whom to my knowledge has ever spent a day in uniform (at least an American uniform), in which not only many ordinary Iranians would die, but many Americans as well.


      I would think simple journalistic ethics would compel certain points to be made: (1) Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allows inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Israel is not a signatory and does not allow inspections; (2) Israel has an arsenal in excess of 300 nuclear weapons and Iran has no such arsenal; (3) any acquisition of a handful of nuclear weapons by Iran, IF it did so, would only affect the ability of Israel to attack it with virtual impunity; (4) Israeli warships and those of other nations regularly transit the Suez Canal; and (5) Israel has attacked its neighbors (such as the Lebanon & Gaza) often, Iran has attacked no one.

      The evidence indicates that Israel and not Iran is the problem, despite the machinations of the neo-conservatives and AIPAC to the contrary.

      As a 10-year Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, I object to the notion that the defining purpose of the US should be to wage or to facilitate Israel's wars. Anyone on your news team with a scrap of journalistic ethics ought to consider these points.

      Sincerely, (Dr) Alan Sabrosky"

      For more from Sabrosky:




  2. Rex,  you're spot-on.  We (The U.S.) have lost our virtue.  But, then again, maybe our virtue – itself, was an illusion from the beginning. As civilians, we must make sure that we don't throw our loved ones in uniform into harms way over a lie (Iraq, as an example).  


    We failed our service men, and women.  We failed our country. We failed our future.  And then elected a guy who would gladly look the other way ("Look Forward, Not Backward"), completely abdicating his responisibliites as an honest leader.


    I enlisted a month after 9/11/01.  Served for 8 years.  Thankfully missed the deployment bullet for both Afghanistan, and Iraq.  It sucks to look back on my service, and have to admit that I supported this criminal enterprise that we call American Foreign Policy.  It removes the honor I felt in serving my country.   Now, as a civilian, I have a responsibility to the other service men and women still in.  To at least try to raise the alarm that they shouldn't be dying, or killing, for coporate greed (and that's what this is about – on a larger scale).  There is no honor in that.  


    Bush, Cheney, Bybee, Yoo, et al… they should be behind bars yesterday.  And if Obama wants to let them walk, he should be there too, for obstruction of justice. But who am I…? I was just a soldier.

  3. Nothing has changed in the last 4 years.

    All options on the table?
    Noam Chomsky

    Khaleej Times, August 6, 2008


    NUCLEAR threats and counter-threats are a subtext of our times, steadily, it seems, becoming more insistent. The July meeting in Geneva between Iran and six major world powers on Iran's nuclear programme ended with no progress.

    The Bush administration was widely praised for having shifted to a more conciliatory stand — namely, by allowing a US diplomat to attend without participating — while Iran was castigated for failing to negotiate seriously. And the powers warned Iran that it would soon face more severe sanctions unless it terminated its uranium enrichment programs.

    Meanwhile India was applauded for agreeing to a nuclear pact with the United States that would effectively authorise its development of nuclear weapons outside the bounds of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), with US assistance in nuclear programmes along with other rewards — in particular, to US firms eager to enter the Indian market for nuclear and weapons development, and ample payoffs to parliamentarians who signed on, a tribute to India's flourishing democracy.

    Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and a leading specialist on nuclear threats, observed reasonably that Washington's decision to "place profits ahead of nonproliferation" could mean the end of the NPT if others follow its lead, sharply increasing the dangers all around.

    During the same period, Israel, another state that has defied the NPT with Western support, conducted large-scale military manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean that were understood to be preparation for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities.

    In a New York Times Op-Ed article, "Using Bombs to Stave Off War," the prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that Iran's leaders should welcome Israeli bombing with conventional weapons, because "the alternative is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland."

    Purposely or not, Morris is reviving an old theme. During the 1950s, leading figures of Israel's governing Labor Party advised in internal discussion that "we will go crazy ("nishtagea") if crossed, threatening to bring down the Temple Walls in the manner of the first "suicide bomber," the revered Samson, who killed more philistines by his suicide than in his entire lifetime.

    Israel's nuclear weapons may well harm its own security, as Israeli strategic analyst Zeev Maoz persuasively argues. But security is often not a high priority for state planners, as history makes clear. And the "Samson complex," as Israeli commentators have called it, can be flaunted to warn the master to carry out the desired task of smashing Iran, or else we'll inflame the region and maybe the world.

    The "Samson complex," reinforced by the doctrine that "the whole world is against us," cannot be lightly ignored. Shortly after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which left some 15-20,000 killed in an unprovoked effort to secure Israel's control of the occupied territories, Aryeh Eliav, one of Israel's best-known doves, wrote that the attitude of "those who brought the 'Samson complex' here, according to which we shall kill and bury all the Gentiles around us while we ourselves shall die with them," is a form of "insanity" that was then all too prevalent, and still is.

    US military analysts have recognised that, as Army Lt. Col. Warner Farr wrote in 1999, one "purpose of Israeli nuclear weapons, not often stated, but obvious, is their 'use' on the United States," presumably to ensure consistent U.S. support for Israeli policies — or else.

    Others see further dangers. Gen. Lee Butler, former commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Command, observed in 1999 that "it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so." This fact is hardly irrelevant to concerns about Iran's nuclear programmes, but is off the agenda.

    Also off the agenda is Article 2 of the UN Charter, which bars the threat of force in international affairs. Both US political parties insistently proclaim their criminality, declaring that "all options are on the table" with regard to Iran's nuclear programmes.


    Some go beyond, like John McCain, joking about what fun it would be to bomb Iran and to kill Iranians, though the humour may be lost on the "unpeople" of the world, to borrow the term used by British historian Mark Curtis for those who do not merit the attention of the privileged and powerful.

    Barack Obama declares that he would do "everything in my power" to prevent Iran from gaining the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. The unpeople surely understand that launching a nuclear war would be "in his power".

    The chorus of denunciations of the New Hitlers in Teheran and the threat they pose to survival has been marred by a few voices from the back rooms. Former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy recently warned that an Israeli attack on Iran "could have an impact on us for the next 100 years."

    An unnamed former senior Mossad official added, "Iran's achievement is creating an image of itself as a scary superpower when it's really a paper tiger" — which is not quite accurate: The achievement should be credited to US-Israeli propaganda.

    One of the participants in the July meetings was Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who outlined "the Arab position": "to work toward a political and diplomatic settlement under which Iran will maintain the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" but without nuclear weapons.

    The "Arab position" is that of most Iranians, along with other unpeople. On July 30, the 120-member Nonaligned Movement reiterated its previous endorsement of Iran's right to enrich uranium in accord with the NPT.

    Joining the unpeople is the large majority of Americans, according to polls. The American unpeople not only endorse Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes but also support the "Arab position" calling for a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the entire region, a step that would sharply reduce major threats, but is also off the agenda of the powerful; unmentionable in electoral campaigns, for example.

    Benny Morris assures us that "Every intelligence agency in the world believes the Iranian programme is geared toward making weapons." As is well-known, the US National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 judged "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons programme." It is doubtful, to say the least, that the intelligence agencies of every country of the NAM disagree.


    Morris is presumably reporting information from an Israeli intelligence source — which generalizes to "every intelligence agency" by the same logic that instructs us that Iran is defying "the world" by seeking to enrich uranium: the world apart from its unpeople.

    There are rumblings in radical nationalist (so-called "neocon") circles that if Barack Obama wins the election, Bush-Cheney should bomb Iran, since the threat of Iran is too great to be left in the hands of a wimpish Democrat. Reports also have surfaced — recently from Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker — on US "covert operations" in Iran, otherwise known as international terrorism.


    In June, Congress came close to passing a resolution (H. Con. Res. 362), strongly supported by the Israeli lobby, virtually calling for a blockade of Iran — an act of war, that could have set off the conflagration that is greatly feared in the region and around the world. Pressures from the anti-war movement appear to have beaten back this particular effort, according to Mark Weisbrot at, but others are likely to follow.


    The government of Iran merits severe condemnation on many counts, but the Iranian threat remains a desperate construction of those who arrogate to themselves the right to rule the world, and consider any impediment to their just rule to be criminal aggression. That is the primary threat that should concern us, as it concerns saner minds in the West, and the unpeople of the rest of the world.