Out of context
Back in early May, the New York Times ran a story by Michael Gordon, its chief military correspondent, on new Bush administration claims that Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese fundamentalist group, was training Iraqi militiamen at a camp near Iran. Like much of the reporting dissected in the Times’ mea culpa after the invasion of Iraq, Gordon’s story relied on anonymous sources and provided little counterpoint to the administration’s claims — a parallel that was promptly noted, in withering terms, by Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald. “Gordon’s reporting is as predictable as it is uncritical and unreliable,” wrote Greenwald. “Any time the administration ratchets up its war-threatening rhetoric with Iran, Gordon . . . pops up with a prominent article that does nothing other than repeat government claims as fact.”
But does the aforementioned Gordon story — or, for that matter, other reports that might be used to bolster the case for war or limited military action — mean that the press hasn’t absorbed the lessons of Iraq? Not so, argues Michael Massing, a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq. “I think that the press learned something from the Iraq failure,” he says. “There have been many more stories about the dangers of attacking Iran than there were about the dangers of attacking Iraq. And on the nuclear issue, they’ve also done better than they did on the WMD question with Iraq.” (Case in point: the Times’ April 26 analysis titled “Questions Linger over Scope of Iran’s Role in Iraq Fighting.”)
Massing does have one major gripe, however. “The area where I find the most similarity to what occurred in the run-up to Iraq,” he says, “is in coverage of the overall relationship between the US and Iran, and particularly the Bush administration’s policies toward Iran. The Bush administration has very successfully framed our relations with Iran, beginning with the ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in 2002, in terms of its black-and-white, us-versus-them perspective. And the press, with a few exceptions, has gone along with this.
“Any talk about Iran needs to be caveated,” Massing continues. “It’s a noxious regime in a lot of ways, and Ahmadinejad in particular has made outrageous statements about Israel and the Holocaust. But it’s a state with strategic interests that both conflict and overlap to some degree with the interests of the US. The Iranians have actually shown themselves willing to cooperate with the US; early in the Bush administration, Iran helped us get rid of the Taliban.” Even so, he concludes, “The way Bush’s hard-line views have perhaps run counter to our own interests there has been largely ignored.”
How, then, should the press proceed? This might seem like a bad time for the press to revisit Bush’s Iran policy, or parse Iran’s internal politics, implications of political flux inside Iran, or explore Iran’s internal politics, or parse hints of US bellicosity with renewed vigor. After all, there’s a presidential election to cover. And the proximity of that election makes it difficult to imagine that any attack against Iran could occur before 2009.