Fox's Failures In Covering The Iran Debate

Blog ››› ››› MIKE BURNS

Writing in Foreign Policy, Harvard University international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt listed his "Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare" and provides examples of media outlets that he believes are responsible for those failures. One other media outlet that quickly comes to mind as an example of extremely poor Iran coverage is Fox News.

For some time now, Fox's coverage of the Iran debate has left much to be desired, and indeed, Fox has committed many of the "top ten media failures" that Walt identified.

"#1 Mainstreaming the war." Walt wrote that media outlets repeatedly push the idea that "war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc.," which could potentially "convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives." Fox has done this repeatedly. For example, Fox military analyst Jack Keane said on Happening Now: "I think it's inevitable" that the United States will have "some kind of conflict" with Iran. Regular Fox guest and former CIA official Michael Scheuer has likewise said that the U.S. is "going to war against the Iranians," and Fox News host Sean Hannity has even said that he thinks war with Iran "has already started."

"#2: Loose talk about Iran's 'nuclear [weapons] program.' " Walt stated that 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." Fox has done this too. During an appearance on America's Newsroom, Fox News national security analyst KT McFarland distorted comments by Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta to claim that "Iran will have a nuclear weapon in a year or sooner," co-host Martha MacCallum failed to point out that there are significant questions about whether Iran is planning to build nuclear weapons at all.

Indeed, 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates found no conclusive evidence that Iran is even trying to build a bomb. And in January 31 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated the fact that the U.S. intelligence committee does not have evidence to say that Iran is trying to build a bomb.

"#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad." Walt wrote that "[a] typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" and noted that such references are "misleading in several ways: [Ahmadinejad] 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."

Fox has repeatedly focused its discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions on the Iranian president. For instance, during an interview with Rep. Allen West (R-FL) on the March 12 edition of her Fox show, Greta Van Susteren said, "Ahmadinejad has said that he wanted to wipe Israel off the map. And you know, there's been no effort to sort of back off from that. He hasn't said he's changed his mind or that he over-spoke or it's just hyperbole. I mean, he has never ever, at least as far as I can see, backed off that. So that's sort of sitting out there, you know, that direct threat to Israel."

Hannity likewise said, "[W]hen Ahmadinejad and these radical Islamists in Iran that have been fighting proxy wars, killing Americans, thumbing their nose at world opinion -- it seems that they doubt their stated intention, which is to wipe Israel off the map. Why would they doubt that? I believe them."

"#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb." Walt wrote that "[d]iscussions 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," despite the fact that "the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes."

Fox has also done this repeatedly. During an interview with Karl Rove, Fox host Greta Van Susteren suggested, for instance, that Iran is "seeking nuclear weapons with the stated mission to destroy" Israel. Rove replied by suggesting that Iran wants nuclear weapons to attack Israel, saying: "They want to have a bomb, and if they have a bomb, this regime's record over the last 40 years is one that ought to give everybody pause and clearly gives the Israelis deep concern because this is an existential question. It literally goes to the survival of the Jewish people and the state of Israel."

Fox News host Mike Huckabee has specifically dismissed deterrence as a possible motivation for Iran, saying on On the Record that the Iranian government is "not a government that really is developing nuclear arms as a deterrent. It's developing nuclear weaponry in order to use the nuclear weaponry against the enemies that it has publicly sworn that it would like to destroy."

"#9: What about the human beings?" Walt wrote that "[o]ne 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," noting that if aerial strikes are carried out on Iran's nuclear facilities, "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." Fox personalities and guests, in pushing for strikes on Iran, have routinely focused on the risks of not striking to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, not how an attack could lead to the deaths of innocent civilians.

"#10. Could diplomacy work?" Walt stated that media outlets often suggest "that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed," but that in reality, while "diplomacy [with Iran] has yet to succeed" and "might not," "it's also never been seriously tried." He explained: "[T]he 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." Fox has also dismissed diplomacy time and again.

During the March 5 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier, columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said that when it comes to nuclear weapons, "there is no diplomacy" with Iran. And Fox News contributor and former Bush administration official John Bolton, who regularly advocates for military strikes on Iran, has said that "[d]iplomacy has failed" and that the "only thing at this very, very late date" that could potentially stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons "is the pre-emptive use of military force."

There are other failures not mentioned by Walt but committed by Fox nonetheless. One of those is Fox's lack of consideration of the broader consequences of a potential war with Iran. Meir Dagan, the former director of Israel's national intelligence agency, the Mossad, has said that an Israeli strike on Iran would likely lead to a regional war.

Furthermore, as The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, were Israel to attack, "regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran's centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran's nuclear program -- they stand a good chance of," among others things, "changing the Middle East forever," "sparking lethal reprisals," "rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally," and "of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973."

Moreover, Panetta has said that a strike against Iran might have a serious impact on U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Yet Fox has at times ignored these consequences, focusing instead on the supposed consequences of not attacking Iran.

There is also Fox's failure on the issue to question whether a military strike on Iran would be effectual at all. An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would only delay, not put an end to, any nuclear ambitions that Iran might have. Indeed, according to Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, an attack would at most delay Iran's nuclear program by a few years. Yet Fox has ignored that reality in calling for strikes on Iran. For example, during the February 7 edition of his Fox News show, Hannity said that "[t]here is a rise of Islamic extremism that is happening under [Obama's] watch, and he's not doing a thing," adding, "[h]e ought to be dropping bunker buster bombs on Iran's nuclear sites."

This is not to suggest that Fox has never presented arguments against a strike on Iran. But taken together, Fox's failures on Iran not only make it seem that war with Iran is inevitable, they make it seem that war with Iran is a good idea.

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