Lessons from another war

“WE talk about generals fighting the last war,” said Tim McNulty, who served as foreign editor for The Chicago Tribune during the Iraq war. “I think journalists also do.”

Nine years after the start of the Iraq war, the scene has shifted to Iran, and Mr. McNulty has a more detached view of events, as co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University. Now he cautions journalists against falling again for a kind of siren song: “the narrative of war.”

“The narrative of war, or anticipating war, is a much stronger narrative than the doubters have,” he said. “It is an easier story to write than the question of, well, is it really necessary?”

In recent months I have heard from many readers concerned that The New York Times is falling for this siren song, the narrative of war, in its coverage of Iran’s nuclear program. Not infrequently, readers and critics invoke Judith Miller’s now-discredited coverage in The Times of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, as if to say it is all happening again.

Among the criticisms are that The Times has given too much space to Israeli proponents of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; has failed to mention often enough that Israel itself has nuclear arms; has sometimes overstated the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency; has repeated the questionable assertion that Iran’s leaders seek the eradication of Israel; has failed to analyze the Iranian supreme leader’s statement that nuclear weapons are a “sin”; and has published misleading headlines.

William O. Beeman, author of “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other,” told me he believes The Times’s coverage has contributed to a dangerous public misunderstanding of the situation.

“The conventional wisdom with regard to Iran is that Iran has a nuclear weapons program and that they are going to attack Israel and going to attack the United States,” said Mr. Beeman, who is chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota. “But all these things are tendentious and highly questionable.”

Mr. Beeman faulted The Times for mischaracterizing I.A.E.A. reports and for a “disconnect between headline and the actual material in the stories that really affects public opinion,” saying these problems raised a question about the “civic responsibility of The Times.”

This bill of particulars against The Times’s coverage weighs heavily, but it is clear to me that this is not a replay of the Judith Miller episode. I do find examples that support the complaints mentioned above, but also see a pattern of coverage that gives due credence to the counternarrative — not of war but of uncertainty and caution.

Jill Abramson, executive editor of The Times, told me the paper is “certainly mindful that some readers may see an echo of the paper’s flawed coverage of Iraq,” but she also noted distinct differences. This time, she said, the United States government is expressing doubts about weapons of mass destruction, not leading the drumbeat for war. And there is no question that Iran has a nuclear program; it’s just unclear whether it is for civilian or military use.

Times journalists “are mindful of our responsibility to be vigilant, skeptical and fair,” she said. “Last month, when the calls for striking Iran began to grow louder, we brought together the foreign and Washington desks and came up with a run of stories designed to examine closely the statements made by those on both sides of the argument, especially the rising calls for a military strike.

“A central argument on that side,” she added, “is that sanctions were not working and never would; that an Israeli strike would be easy and effective and might not draw the U.S. into war; and that Iran was weak, and unlikely to retaliate in the event of a strike.

She pointed to articles The Times has done on all those issues, plus one saying that American intelligence analysts continued to believe there was no hard evidence that Iran had decided to build a nuclear bomb.

These were all good articles, and all were played on Page 1. Getting the Iranian point of view, though, has proved far more elusive and is complicated by The Times’s difficulty gaining access to the country, which carefully controls foreign news media. Although The Times’s Robert F. Worth captured some Iranian voices in his Feb. 6 article on the impact of sanctions, The Times has not been able to report from within the country on a consistent basis.

The result is an asymmetry of perspective, something I heard frequently in conversations with others about the coverage. The Times, for example, ran a 7,627-word Sunday magazine article by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman about Israel’s calculations for a possible attack. No such word count can be tied to the Iranian point of view.

“There needs to be far more effort to get into the heads of Iranians, the policy makers and their people, to understand how this chess game is being played from their perspective,” said Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and Canada’s CBC News, and now a lecturer at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto.

Kevin Klose, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland and former president of NPR, called for an effort to “carefully parse” the public statements of Iran’s leaders and publish analyses that capture the nuances.

Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist who spent much of 2011 in Iran, observed that news coverage has left Americans with a caricatured understanding not only of Iran’s leaders but of its people “as being completely oppressed or completely lunatic.”

“Neither is accurate,” said Mr. Majd, author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” and “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy.”

What is needed from The Times, he added, is more effort not only to get ordinary Iranian voices into the coverage but also to reach across the cultural divide to fully understand significant statements from the Iranian leadership, like the fatwa against nuclear weapons by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

I share this view and believe the West’s inability to understand the other side’s leadership may have a parallel with the run-up to the Iraq war. Once again, the stakes are high for all involved, including The Times, which has an opportunity to get it right this time.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on March 10, 2012.

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