Has your hometown newspaper drunk the Kool-Aid on claims that “the debate is over,” and that everyone now knows that Iran is pursuing the acquisition of a nuclear weapon? Help is on the way. On Sunday, Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton, responding to complaints over a Post headline treating the unproven allegation as a known fact, came down firmly on the side of the complainants. Moreover, Post editors corrected the offending headline, conceding it had been an error to fail to acknowledge debate.
The Post's exemplary intervention on behalf of honest and accurate journalism comes at an opportune time, because Congress is currently poised to approve two self-destructive measures purportedly justified by the alleged urgency of the threat that Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon: imposing economic sanctions on Europeans who buy oil from Iran, and prohibiting contact between US diplomats and Iranian officials deemed to be a “threat.”
The Post has a photo gallery about Iran's nuclear program, which they run on their web site alongside articles related to Iran. Until last week, the headline on this photo gallery was, “Iran's quest to possess nuclear weapons” (you can see a screen capture of the original headline here.)
This headline assumed as fact an unproven allegation. Moreover, if “low information voters” became convinced by repetition in the media that the unproven allegation that Iran is working to acquire a nuclear weapon had been established, it would increase the likelihood of military conflict between the United States and Iran, because regardless of whether this belief is just or wise, the belief is widespread that a proven decision by Iran to work to acquire a nuclear weapon would constitute a casus belli with the United States. Furthermore, widespread belief that the unproven allegation had been established would facilitate the enactment of other self-destructive policies short of war, because if you can convince people that we are on the cusp of war with Iran, then other self-destructive policies – like punishing Europe economically for buying oil from Iran, or prohibiting contact between US and Iranian officials – seem less extreme by comparison.
Media repetition of unproven allegations about Iraq as if they were fact was instrumental in facilitating the US invasion of Iraq, an invasion that most Americans think was a terrible mistake.
Following public complaint to the ombudsman, and the ombudsman's subsequent investigation, Post editors changed the headline to “Iran's quest to possess nuclear technology,” and they added an editorial note which acknowledged that the earlier headline “failed to reflect debate over whether Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon.”
Writing about these events in the Post Sunday, Pexton said that the complainants were right and that the headline was misleading, and noted:
This is what the U.S. director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March: “We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
What Clapper told the Senate remains the US government assessment today – an assessment buttressed by CIA drone flights over Iran, which, as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor noted last week, have not found evidence of clandestine nuclear facilities.
Nothing significant has changed since March on this front, except a lot of hype around the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. But as Ombudsman Pexton noted:
But the IAEA report does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.
Pexton noted that a bad headline can “circle the globe in minutes” and “play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.” Indeed. Bad headlines have helped poise Members of Congress to vote for extreme, self-destructive measures, if Iran's nuclear program is the alleged justification.
Now that we know that it was false to claim that the debate is over about whether Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, how about writing to your representative, and asking him or her to vote against prohibiting US diplomats from talking to Iranian officials, a prohibition that – as Ambassador Holbrooke would surely have noted – could obstruct efforts to end the war in Afghanistan?