Many in the media have long since repudiated their failures in the lead-up to the Iraq War, acknowledging that they were too quick to accept the false notion that Iraq possessed a sizable and dangerous cache of weapons of mass destruction. The question today is whether they have learned from those mistakes.
The media's self-reflection began as early as May of 2004, little more than a year after the conflict began, when The New York Times editorial board reflected on the paper's coverage of the war and stated that they "found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." Top editors at the Times and The Washington Post subsequently acknowledged they had failed to push for front-page articles on "the flimsiness of the intelligence on W.M.D." The media's poor coverage has been noted by the Post's Walter Pincus, CNN's Howard Kurtz, CBS' Katie Couric, and many more.
But fast forward to today, and the media's coverage of Iran's nuclear program suggests that some outlets have not learned from Iraq reporting failures and risk repeating history. Media Matters reviewed transcripts of ABC's World News, CBS' Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News between November 8, 2011 and March 31, 2012. The examination reveals that once again the media is frequently misrepresenting the expert opinion of the intelligence community.
Two egregious misrepresentations in particular repeatedly came up in news reports on the Iranian nuclear program: suggesting that Iran will imminently obtain the bomb and suggesting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has major influence over the country's nuclear program.
- 31 percent of stories on ABC's World News, CBS' Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News suggested or left unchallenged suggestions that nuclear weaponization in Iran is imminent.
- 24 percent of stories misleadingly brought up Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during discussion of the country's nuclear program.
- World News most often suggested imminent nuclear weaponization in Iran (45 percent of its stories).
- Nightly News most often invoked Ahmadinejad during segments on Iranian nuclear issues (33 percent of its reports).
The graphic teasing a NBC Nightly News story November 8 of last year read: "Nuclear Threat?" Underneath the ominous words sat clashing American and Iranian flags. Anchor Brian Williams began, "There's also news tonight about Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons. There's a new U.N. report out. It says the threat has grown more real."
Amid images of Iranian President Ahmadinejad touring nuclear facilities and ballistic missiles launching into the air, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported: "Iran's President Ahmadinejad today called the head of the U.N. agency a puppet of the U.S. But the U.N. agency, the IAEA, reports new evidence that Iran is on the verge of a major nuclear breakthrough to know how to build a nuclear bomb."
The report is illustrative of the two aforementioned misrepresentations: that nuclear weaponization in Iran is imminent and that Ahmadinejad holds any major influence over the direction of the country's nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) November 8 report referenced by Mitchell paints a different picture. According to Greg Thielmann, former State Department intelligence analyst and former Senate Intelligence Committee senior staffer, and Benjamin Loehrke, senior policy analyst at Ploughshares Fund (a global security foundation), the November IAEA report is consistent with the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence's 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates, which found no conclusive proof that Iran has attempted to build the bomb since 2003, when the country halted its nuclear weapons program. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, further stated in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last January that U.S. intelligence has no evidence that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the hypothetical scenario of Iran deciding to pursue nuclear weapons, he still estimated that it would take the country a considerable about of time to build a weapon following the decision to initiate such a program. In the interview, Panetta said, "The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon."
Invoking Ahmadinejad or his rhetoric, including the famously mistranslated "Israel must be wiped off the map," similarly misleads. Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, explains that inserting Ahmadinejad into the discussion is problematic because the Iranian president "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."
However, even Ahmadinejad himself claims that Iran "does not need atomic bombs." The Iranian president has also previously said, "If any country tries to build a nuclear bomb, they waste their money and their resources."
Conservative media like Fox News have unsurprisingly reiterated these misconceptions. Going back as far as 2005, conservative media reports on the Iranian nuclear program consistently peg the country as almost always about a year or less away from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Fox News hosts Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity repeatedly focus on the Iranian president.
But these reporting failures also pervade more traditional outlets: the evening broadcasts of network news.
Out of 51 total segments (11 for World News, 22 for Evening News, and 18 for Nightly News), 31 percent gave the false impression that Iran either currently has a nuclear weapons program or will soon have the bomb.
For example, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer introduced a November 8, 2011 story on this topic with this: "And now, a long-dreaded headline about Iran and nuclear weapons. After a decade of debating whether Iran would build one, a U.N. report says tonight they will, and it has begun."
On December 5, 2011, CBS anchor Scott Pelley said during a broadcast of the Evening News that "U.S. intelligence is spying intensely on Iranian sites believed to be developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles." He continued, "There's concern that Iran is developing missiles to carry a future nuclear weapon."
And Nightly News correspondent Ali Arouzi reported on January 8, 2012: "Iran announced today that it had begun to enrich uranium at a second underground facility well protected from possible airstrikes. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the West suspects Iran of developing a nuclear weapons program."
The three network news shows invoked Ahmadinejad to a lesser extent, but these insertions were no less problematic. Twenty-four percent of all segments made the Iranian president a part of their stories on this topic.
For example, all three networks reported stories that covered Ahmadinejad's showboating over nuclear achievements in the middle of February. Nightly News' Williams began a story on February 15, 2012 with this: "Tonight, tensions over Iran's nuclear program are running hot after the Iranian President Ahmadinejad made a big show at a Tehran nuclear site showing off his country's new hardware, claiming other advances at a second nuclear facility. Further proof that Iran wants to join the club of nuclear nations despite global pressure and tough sanctions intended to stop it."
In a February 11, 2012 story, CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano similarly ran with a tease from the Iranian president, reporting that "President Ahmadinejad promised there would be word of major nuclear achievements within the next few days." ABC went with a similar story that day. Anchor David Muir reported: "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling the Iranians that Iran will soon make a major nuclear announcement, unveiling, in his words, a big new nuclear achievement."
Media Matters reviewed Nexis transcripts between November 8, 2011 (the day that coverage picked up after the IAEA issued its report) and March 31, 2012 for segments on ABC's World News, CBS' Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News about Iran and its nuclear program. All applicable segments were reviewed for discussion of weaponization and mentions of Ahmadinejad.
Segments that assumed Iran had an active nuclear weapons program or stated that the country would obtain the bomb in less than a year were coded as misrepresenting the facts. Segments that speculated on the consequences if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons were also included because such speculation ignores that no evidence has surfaced to suggest that Iran intends to build nukes.
Any segment that mentioned Ahmadinejad in any capacity was coded as unnecessarily connecting the Iranian president to the country's nuclear program.