With every day that passes, the drumbeat of war echoes a little more loudly through our media. Yesterday, officials in Iran said that the country will soon have produced and stockpiled more low-enriched uranium—of the type used in power plants—than it is permitted to possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US ditched last year. In Washington, the Trump administration moved to dispatch 1,000 American troops to the Middle East, adding to the 1,500-strong deployment it sent last month. Tensions between the US and Iran, we are told, are rising.
Yesterday, the Trump administration declassified images it says back up its case that Iran was behind the tanker attacks. Many outlets relayed administration claims about the images in headlines; in a tweet, Politico said that, per the Pentagon, “the images provide ironclad evidence Iran was responsible.” The third paragraph of Politico’s linked story, however, notes that “nothing in the photos or accompanying documents reveal evidence of the placement of the magnetic mines on the ship.” Hardly “ironclad,” then. Last night, in an article for Task & Purpose, a military news site, Jeff Schogol argued that “not a single US official has provided a shred of proof linking Iran to the explosive devices found on the merchant ships.” Without air-tight evidence, news outlets really should not air administration claims without a heavy dose of context. “Pompeo/Bolton/Shanahan said” is not enough.
Again, it’s hard to generalize, but US coverage of the latest Iran episode seems to be falling into some old, bad habits. In recent coverage, “the media has generally been better at treating unproven accusations by the Trump administration as just that—accusations, and not facts,” Trita Parsi, a researcher and founder of the National Iranian American Council, told me last night in an email. “Yet, on numerous occasions, there has either been a failure to push back against blatantly false assertions by Trump officials, or Trump accusations have been presented as proven facts.” The problem is especially acute in headlines and tweets, Parsi notes.
I have lived though journalistic fails of this sort my entire life.
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the press gets this right in my lifetime.