Never-Ending Story: The American Press Fails on Iran

ahmadinejad_iran-nuclear-The big, bad Iran nuclear threat is one of the American news media’s favorite evergreen stories. Year after year, it picks up where it left off: Enrichment, sanctions, red lines, the usual.

In November, the media circus on Iran exploded. From Foreign Affairs’ catastrophe “Time to attack Iran,” to The New York Times Magazine’s seemingly-million-word “Will Israel attack Iran?” (Conclusion: Yes, this year), to The Atlantic’s new “Iran War Clock” (It’s 10 minutes to midnight, by the way), the blockbuster stories that paint broad strokes of fear, panic, and war keep rolling out.

At a time when 71 percent of Americans incorrectly believe Iran has nuclear weapons and nearly 90 percent view the country unfavorably, fiction in the American press has grown so pervasive that it has become it’s own reality. A headline like “What Happens After Israel Attacks Iran?” normalizes the idea of war and assumes it as inevitable.

You would think the story would just maybe wind down after President Obama’s AIPAC speech earlier this month, and what some see as the administration’s attempt to deescalate the situation, or new rounds of negotiations. Instead, the distortion snowballs on.

Last week, Reuters published a “special report,” announcing that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb, has not decided to build one, and is years away from the technology, regardless. Days earlier, the mainstream’s titan of Iran reporting Christiane Amanpour took to her Twitter account to shout the CNN breaking news headline “IRAN IS ‘NOT PURSUING NUCLEAR WEAPONS.’” Several former IAEA officials also stepped forward to criticize the current organization’s pro-Western bias.

Now, none of the above stories are news. They recycle what has been reported for years. Why, then, do America’s most visible media outlets continue to give doomsday hysteria play? No matter how many times Iran’s leaders condemnnuclear weapons, or how many times Ahmadinejad’s now-cliché 2005 “wipe Israel off the map” comment is re-explained, it’s still quoted ad nauseam. Why won’t the myths die?

We continue to see ubiquitous opinion pieces like Bret Stephen’s column in the Wall Street Journal last week, genuinelyarguing to ignore intelligence altogether when considering war, and, of course, daily updates that fail to disqualify the Republican presidential candidates’ propaganda on the issue (See: Santorum’s Obama-Ahmadinejad mashup).

Major news organizations have acknowledged some failures. Both The New York Times public editor and The Washington Post ombudsman recently attacked their papers for muddying the facts after readers called them for an eerie echo to reporting leading up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

There are voices of nuance and necessary views from Iran. But they are not on magazine covers. Almost nowhere in mainstream American journalism is there a consideration of the historical moment, of what Iran’s grievances, intentions, weaknesses are, and how they came to be.

This is the crux of the issue. There is no talk of the domestic motivations for the Iranian government’s actions. There are no Iranian voices. Civilians in Iraq were masked as victims to liberate, but the tens of millions of people living in Iran are not even given a breath.

The press is stuck in a cycle of cherry-picking cryptic findings from this or that report. Or musing: What are the advantages and disadvantages? Are they close to a nuclear weapon, or not? Will Israel attack this year, or not? The numerous journalists and experts who have mocked the hawks still argue within this shallow binary. As long as this is the case, with a pause only on occasion to consider oil prices, the grotesque conversation of hypothesis and assumption will never go anywhere.


Roxanne Emadi is a writer and MA candidate at Columbia University. Her research interests include media, technology, and contemporary Iranian society.